Covid An Opportunity To Learn, And Address Other Diseases, Say Experts

PETALING JAYA: Although the pandemic has affected HIV efforts across the region and done so much damage, it may still be useful in strengthening infectious diseases responses in the future, say experts in Southeast Asia.

International AIDS Society (IAS) president Dr Adeeba Kamarulzaman said it was interesting to see “armchair epidemiologists,” in the general public becoming more aware of RT-PCR tests and infectivity rates, known as r0 or R-naught.

She said the pandemic posed an opportunity for increased attention to both pandemic preparedness and working in a “holistic manner”.

“TB (tuberculosis), Covid-19 and HIV, in places like prisons are all intertwined. Integrated treatment services and focusing on patients and population-centric care should be accelerated post-Covid,” she said.

Adeeba added that the quick global response to Covid-19 was enabled by data-sharing, open science and public collaboration for the common good, which she hoped would be the norm for all infectious diseases in the future.

Adeeba and other experts were briefing the media about Covid-19’s impacts on the HIV and AIDS epidemic in the region. It was held in conjunction with the 40th anniversary of AIDS tomorrow, and ahead of the UN High Level Meeting on HIV and AIDS next Tuesday

Nittaya Phanuphak.

Dr Nittaya Phanuphak from Thailand, who is an IAS governing council member, said her country’s healthcare providers were overstretched, as they had to deal with Covid-19 support on top of existing sexual health services.

With Thailand facing another wave of infections after its Songkran celebration in April, Phanuphak stressed the importance of balancing both Covid-19 response and HIV efforts, adding that there was no need to “wait until the pandemic goes away”

For neighbouring Indonesia, HIV activist Ayu Oktatriani noted that HIV patients lacked access to hospital treatment during the start of the pandemic, as all focus was on Covid-19.

She said they also faced a supply shortage of antiretroviral drugs (ARV) to treat HIV early last year, following restricted delivery services.

“People with HIV had to borrow each other’s medicine, even though everyone needed it. Every country should have good management if we face another new disease,” said Ayu.

The number of physical and sexual violence cases for women living with HIV had also increased during the lockdown period, she added.

Over in Singapore, National HIV Programme director Dr Wong Chen Seong said manpower for HIV treatment had taken a hit as infectious diseases centres shifted their focus on Covid-19.

“We are keeping people out of healthcare institutions as much as possible because they are caring for Covid-19 patients. We need to look at how our care infrastructure can be redesigned and how to continue providing HIV care that still has the personal touch but is safe,” said Wong.

Wong added that he had also received several questions on why a HIV vaccine has not been developed for so long when a Covid-19 vaccine was produced in just a year.

“These are interesting conversations but they are conversations that cannot just be held in the consultation room.”

Vinn Pagtakhan, who is executive director for HIV non-governmental organisation (NGO) LoveYourself, said the Philippines’ decentralised healthcare system enabled each city to conduct its own vaccination programme.

However, he said the controversial Dengvaxia dengue fever vaccine in 2016 had caused vaccine hesitancy within rural areas.

While the use of mobile HIV treatments helped to prevent Covid-19 infections, Pagtakhan said it was not sustainable. He hoped governments could come up with proper guidelines and better funding for NGOs to continue their HIV initiatives soon.


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