Nam, SA tackle twin threat

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Tiri Masawi

Windhoek – A recent study by South Africa African scientist shows a high likelihood of HIV and tuberculosis patients fatally contracting COVID-19 pandemic.

With HIV prevalence rates in several Southern African countries ranging as high as 20 percent, this is not good news at all.

Fortunately, the experts say the HIV/TB correlation with the new coronavirus is not high enough to warrant a crisis.

All the same, countries like Namibia and South Africa are not taking chances, and health authorities are setting up systems to ensure people living with these conditions are not more exposed to COVID-19 none the general populace.

One of the ways these countries have done this is by pre-availing ARV medication so as to minimise people’s movements and thus reduce the risk of contracting coronavirus.

The basis for this precaution is a recent study in Western Cape, South Africa.

A specific sample of 12 000 COVID patients in Western Cape showed that those with HIV as an underlying condition have a 2,75 percent higher risk of dying if they contract the coronavirus than people without HIV or TB..

South African experts advised that one way of nullifying – or at least minimising – this added risk is to ensure ready access to medication.

South African health expert Marry-Ann Davis last week said although COVID-19 posed an added challenge to people living with HIV, the panic button had not been pressed.

“We don’t need to worry as much that we will see this overwhelming COVID-19 mortality for people living with HIV and Aids,” she said in her findings.

Nonetheless, Namibia’s health authorities are not taking chances, and they have improved access to antiretroviral treatment for the 200 000 citizens living with HIV.

People requiring ARVs are now being given enough medication to cover four months at a stretch, rather than the usual monthly prescriptions.

This means there is reduced risk of people coming into contact with coronavirus as they have sufficient quantities of medication readily available at home.

Namibia has also started rolling out tele-counselling as well as digital counselling and related services.

According to Namibia’s government, 20 percent of the population is living with HIV. Of these, 96 percent know their status and are on ARV therapy. In addition, the country has eliminated transmission of HIV from mother-to-child.

Centres for Disease Control Namibia country director Dr Eric Dziuban says the Southern African country is now a leader on the continent when it comes to dually combatting HIV/AIDS and COVID-19.

“We already started distributing drugs to patients living with HIV and AIDS that can last for up to four months. The idea behind this is to make sure that the people living with HIV and AIDS do not have to be visiting public health facilities unnecessarily during the times of COVID-19, and also to make sure that our public health facilities are not unnecessarily congested,” he explains.

“Almost all HIV patients, where they are, have a comfortable supply of medication and do not need to panic. Namibia has also put in place measures that are far better than many other countries on the continent to combat the spread of HIV during the time that we are facing coronavirus.

“These measures are proving successful on both fronts as the country has not recorded any deaths from COVID, while the numbers of new HIV infections are well controlled.”

According to Dr Dzuiban, Namibia’s young population (ages 15 to 24 years) are more susceptible to HIV and AIDS, hence government deliberately targets this demographic in its public health programmes.

Namibia Ministry of Health chief medical officer (sexually transmitted diseases and HIV) Laimi Ashipala says they are also implementing a constant counselling and engagement plan with people living with HIV.

The plan includes using different communications platforms and technologies including fixed telephony and digital applications for steady dissemination of vital information and for counselling.

“We have come up with better methods (of monitoring and evaluation), and also for disbursing medication and this is proving very useful in this time of COVID-19,” she adds.

The director of special programmes in the Health Ministry, Anna Marie Nitschke, says in addition to this, Namibia is stocking ARVs for its population living with HIV despite the disruption in distribution channels caused by COVID-19.

“We have a good enough supply of ARVs for our patients and the ongoing challenges of COVID-19 have not really disrupted our supply chain … our patients will have enough access to drugs.”

Meanwhile, the Secretariat of the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) says the impact of HIV and AIDS cannot be under-estimated and it is being felt at household, community, national and regional level.

The region’s orphan population has been growing, and the bloc estimates that more than 5,5 million children have been left without a mother or a father because of AIDS in the last 20 years.

“The SADC region remains the area most affected by the HIV epidemic. According to the UNAIDS 2019 Global Report, out of the total number of people living with HIV worldwide in 2019, 34% resided in ten SADC countries,” SADC said.

The SADC Secretariat continues to emphasise and support interventions such as condom promotion and distribution, behaviour change communication, HIV testing and counselling, safe medical circumcision, mainstreaming HIV and AIDS across all sectors, prevention of mother-to-child transmission, treatment and home-based care.

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