By Doris Obinna

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the world on Tuesday, December 1, commemorated the World AIDS Day, acquired immune deficiency syndrome, which is spread by a virus called human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Each year, people around the world unite to show support for people living with HIV and to remember those who have died from AIDS-related illnesses.

This year’s focus, “Global Solidarity Shared Responsibility,” joins a growing list of challenges that World AIDS Day founded in 1988, has alerted people too globally. Every year, United Nations agencies, governments and civil society organisations join together to campaign around specific themes related to HIV.

However, HIV prevention, testing and treatment are all being disrupted worldwide particularly in countries where healthcare infrastructure is weak, due to COVID-19 pandemic. The World Health Organisation (WHO), confirmed: “Breakdown in essential HIV services due to COVID-19 is threatening lives.

“HIV is an infection that attacks the body’s immune system; specifically the white blood cells called CD4 (cluster of differentiation 4) cells. HIV destroys these CD4 cells, weakening a person’s immunity against infections such as tuberculosis and some cancers.

“People diagnosed with HIV should be offered and linked to antiretroviral treatment as soon as possible following diagnosis. If taken consistently, this treatment also prevents HIV transmission to others.

“If the person’s CD4 cell count falls below 200, the immunity is severely compromised, leaving them more susceptible to infections. Someone with a CD4 count below 200 is described as having AIDS.

“HIV can be diagnosed using simple and affordable rapid diagnostic tests, as well as self-tests. It is important that HIV testing services follow the 5Cs: consent, confidentiality, counselling, correct results and connection with treatment and other services.”

Evaluating the condition for HIV/AIDS treatment in Nigeria, Dr Gabriel Omonaiye, said “it is excellent compared to years back about 12 to 13 years ago where quite a number of people living with HIV/AIDs died.

“In recent times, we have those patients who are ready to cooperate and continue with medication and proper lifestyle and adequate nutrition, they do very well especially with support from the National Agency for the Control of AIDS (NACA) and free drugs given to them, they’ve been doing very well.

“Let me take from another angle, if NACA withdraws with government coming to close the gap, replacing what will be lost it’s going to be terrible. One thing I believe is that we should not have this belief that we have to be supported by external bodies.

“Let us look inward and ask ourselves question. What can we do to assist the government? Corporate individuals, wealthy individuals and religious bodies should look for a way of assisting. We can always appeal to the foreign donors to continue in their good work, it is fine.

“But then, for how long do we look unto these external supports? We should start planning, looking for the means and ways through which funds can come in and see how we can help our own people. These are foreign bodies, if they can rise to the occasion to assist nationals of other nations, I think we have to see it as a form of challenge and rise to the tasks.”

Reducing the risks

HIV is spread through certain body fluids from HIV-infected persons: blood, semen (cum), pre-seminal fluid (pre-cum), rectal fluids, vaginal fluids, and breast milk. HIV is most often transmitted by having unprotected anal or vaginal sex with someone who has HIV without using a condom or taking medicines to prevent or treat HIV. In addition, a mother can pass HIV to her baby during pregnancy, during labour, through breastfeeding, or by pre-chewing her baby’s food.

A WHO research has shown that the higher your viral load, the more likely you are to transmit HIV to others: “When your viral load is low (called viral suppression, with less than 200 copies per milliliter of blood) or undetectable (about 40 copies per milliliter of blood), your chance of transmitting HIV is greatly reduced.

“However, this is true only if you can stay virally suppressed. One thing that can increase viral load is not taking HIV medicines the right way, everyday.

“HIV may not cause symptoms early. However, people who do have symptoms may mistake them for flu or mono. Early symptoms of HIV are called acute retroviral syndrome, which may include; belly cramps, nausea, or vomiting. Other signs are diarrhea, enlarged lymph nodes in the neck, armpits, and groin, fever, headache, muscle aches and joint pain, skin rash, sore throat and weight loss.

“These first symptoms can range from mild to severe and usually disappear on their own after two to three weeks. But many people don’t have symptoms or they have such mild symptoms that they don’t notice them at this stage.

“After the early symptoms go away, an infected person may not have symptoms again for many years. However, after a certain point, symptoms reappear and then remain. Untreated HIV infection progresses in stages. These stages are dependent on your symptoms and the amount of the virus in the blood.”

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World AIDS Day like no other

Executive Director, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), Winnie Byanyima, disclosed that COVID-19 is threatening the progress that the world has made in health and development over the past 20 years, including “the gains we have made against HIV. Like all epidemics, it is widening the inequalities that already existed. Whether gender, racial, social and economic inequalities, we are becoming a more unequal world.

“I am proud that over the past year the HIV movement has mobilized to defend our progress, to protect people living with HIV and other vulnerable groups and to push the coronavirus back.

“Whether campaigning for multimonth dispensing of HIV treatment, organizing home deliveries of medicines or providing financial assistance, food and shelter to at-risk groups, HIV activists and affected communities have again shown they are the mainstay of the HIV response. I salute you!

“It is the strength within communities, inspired by a shared responsibility to each other that has contributed in great part to our victories over HIV. We need that strength more than ever to beat the colliding epidemics of HIV and COVID-19.

“In responding to COVID-19, the world cannot make the same mistakes it made in the fight against HIV, when millions in developing countries died waiting for treatment.

“Even today, more than 12 million people are still waiting to get on HIV treatment and 1.7 million people became infected with HIV in 2019 because they could not access essential services. That is why UNAIDS has been a leading advocate for a people’s vaccine against the coronavirus.”


Global problems need global


Byanyima said, “as the first COVID-19 vaccine candidates have proven effective and safe, there is hope that more will follow, but there are serious threats to ensuring equitable access.

“We are calling on companies to openly share their technology and know-how and to wave their intellectual property rights so that the world can produce the successful vaccines at the huge scale and speed required to protect everyone and so that we can get the global economy back on track.

“Our goal of ending the AIDS epidemic was already off track before COVID-19. We must put people first to get the AIDS response back on track. We must end the social injustices that put people at risk of contracting HIV.

“And we must fight for the right to health. There is no excuse for governments not to invest fully for universal access to health. Barriers such as up-front user fees that lock people out of health must come down.

“Women and girls must have their human rights fully respected, and the criminalization and marginalization of gay men, transgender people, sex workers and people who use drugs must stop. The world is in a dangerous place. Only global solidarity and shared responsibility will help us beat the coronavirus, end the AIDS epidemic and guarantee the right to health for all.”


How to know you have HIV

WHO advised: “The only way to know for sure whether you have HIV is to get tested. Knowing your status is important because it helps you make healthy decisions to prevent getting or transmitting HIV. Over time, studies have shown that some people may experience a flu-like illness within two to four weeks after infection.

“At advanced stage, there are other symptoms, which can last anywhere from a few days to several weeks. During this time, HIV infection may not show up on an HIV test, but people who have it are highly infectious and can spread the infection to others.

“If you have these symptoms, however, this does not mean you have HIV. Each of these symptoms can be caused by other illnesses. The only way to determine whether you are infected or not is to be tested for HIV infection. ” WHO advised.