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Working to End HIV/AIDS During COVID-19

The U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) is working to end HIV/AIDS. Since PEPFAR’s launch in 2003, the U.S. government has made an investment of more than $85 billion to combat the HIV/AIDS epidemic. This investment has saved more than 20 million lives and has brought the HIV/AIDS epidemic under control in more than 50 countries through HIV infection prevention.

The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS set 95-95-95 targets to reduce and control HIV infection by 2030. These include making sure that 95% of people with HIV infection are aware of their HIV status, ensuring that 95% of HIV-positive people receive antiretroviral treatment and calling for viral load testing and suppression among 95% of HIV-positive people. The limited availability of resources during COVID-19 challenges the effort to meet these targets. However, both the CDC and PEPFAR have shown their commitment to ending HIV/AIDS despite countries grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Limited Resource Availability  

Lockdown restrictions and travel restrictions to battle the COVID-19 pandemic have affected the availability of essential HIV services around the world, making it difficult for PEPFAR to end HIV/AIDS. In the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, health professionals dedicated to combatting HIV/AIDS diverted their efforts to the COVID-19 response. Viral load testing platform manufacturers started developing molecular diagnostic capability for COVID-19 using the same equipment that people used for viral load testing for HIV previously. All this decreased the availability of antiretroviral services. It also restricted the ability of healthcare professionals to follow with treatment outcomes associated with viral load testing.  

The Impact of COVID-19 on Viral Load Testing 

PEPFAR conducted a review to examine the global impact of the pandemic on viral load testing for HIV. The review showed that the coverage of viral load testing for all countries supported by PEPFAR was at a stable 78% between September and December 2019, but that coverage dropped to 71% between January and March 2020 due to the limited accessibility to laboratory and medical services amid the pandemic. Between April and June 2020, when routine services restarted, viral load testing coverage jumped by 75%. 

Additionally, 91% of the patients on antiretroviral treatment who did receive the viral load testing between October 2019 and March 2020 remained stable in terms of viral suppression. That continued at 92% between April and June 2020. This stable suppression of viral load indicates that even though fewer patients received antiretroviral treatment and testing during the COVID-19 pandemic, those who did receive the viral load testing had access to and complied with the antiretroviral treatment regimen. Despite poor odds, PEPFAR’s effort to end HIV/AIDS was right on its track during the first year of COVID-19. 

Innovative Initiatives  

To fulfill the HIV/AIDS targets by 2030, PEPFAR must develop newer strategies that countries can implement during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. One innovative approach PEPFAR has adopted includes point-of-care technology for those patients who are in need of expedited testing. These include patients failing the antiretroviral treatment, pregnant and breastfeeding women and children with low rates of viral suppression.

To support the impoverished communities in the sub-Saharan Africa region who the COVID-19 pandemic hit especially hard, PEPFAR has begun to dispense antiretrovirals for several months at once. It also has implemented task shifting and healthcare worker sharing. Third, it has encouraged the use of telemedicine while canceling most of the in-person activities to reduce the transmission risk. Fourth, PEPFAR has allowed flexibility in reporting requirements, funding reallocation and staffing. All these strategies combined have helped PEPFAR to keep on track with its agenda to end HIV/AIDS despite COVID-19.  

The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly affected the resource availability required for delivering the services for HIV infection control. However, PEPFAR is continuing to meet targets for 2030 by applying innovative strategies.

– Jared Faircloth
Photo: Flickr