Source: Daily Nation
Widowed and with four children, Ms Florence Atieno has been living positively with HIV for 10 years now.
Before the Covid-19 pandemic hit the country, Ms Atieno, who lives in Nyalenda slums in Kisumu County, could easily access her antiretroviral therapy drugs (ARVs).
As a registered client at the Kisumu County Referral Hospital, she would pick up her drugs on a monthly basis.
But with the economic challenges brought about by the pandemic, the 45-year-old mother says she is hesitant to go to the facility for fear of contracting the coronavirus, which could complicate her condition.
She also cannot afford a mask, which is now mandatory when out in public. She is among hundreds of people living with HIV who are avoiding visiting local health facilities to collect their drugs for fear of contracting Covid-19.
“You know, people living with HIV are more at risk of suffering the adverse effects of Covid-19,” the mother of four says.
She has, therefore, resorted to sending someone to pick up the drugs on her behalf.
Ms Jane Oriedo, a resident of Nyalenda, confirms that there are HIV patients in the slum who fear visiting health facilities.
“Those who are yet to pick up their drugs would rather send another person who is courageous enough to pick them up on their behalf,” said Ms Oriedo.
A number of health facilities have recorded a drastic reduction in the number of people showing up to collect their drug supplies.
At the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, however, 33,000 HIV patients in 61 facilities in Kisumu were supplied with ARVs to last them months.
The initiative was carried out in all facilities where the Family Aids Care and Education Services (Faces), led by the Kenya Medical Research Institute, has programmes on comprehensive care for HIV patients.
To mitigate the decline in patients visiting facilities, the National Network of People Living with HIV has started an initiative to distribute the ARVs to those who cannot access them in public facilities.
Due to stigma, many HIV clients choose to register for ARVs at public facilities that are far from their areas of residence.
“I know of cases where people have failed to take their drugs as scheduled due to the stress of life during these difficult times," the network’s chairman Erick Okioma said.
These concerns around access to HIV medication and services are not limited to Kenya.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned that the number of deaths from Aids-related illnesses in sub-Saharan Africa could double if provision of healthcare is disrupted during the coronavirus crisis.
In the worst-case scenario, a modelling group convened by the WHO and the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) shows that a six-month disruption of antiretroviral therapy (ART) could result in 500,000 extra deaths, setting the clock backward by more than a decade.
Further, gains made in preventing mother-to-child transmission could be reversed, raising new HIV infections among children by as much as 104 per cent.
The UN health agency advises that even as governments focus on controlling the spread of Covid-19, they need to prevent interruptions of access to ARVs.
“We must read this as a wake-up call to countries to identify ways to sustain all vital health services. For HIV, some countries are already taking important steps, for example ensuring that people can collect bulk packs of treatment. We must also ensure global supplies of tests and treatments continue to flow to the countries that need them,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
“The Covid-19 pandemic must not be an excuse to divert investment from HIV,” said UNAIDS Executive Director Winnie Byanyima.