Fear as HIV, Coronavirus Collide

Fear of the Coronavirus Pandemic for people living with HIV!

Article by Shamiso Yikoniko

As the world scales up public health and all other kinds of responses to the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic, the fear is palpable.

Stores have sold out obvious items like hand sanitisers and face masks, and the less obvious ones like toilet paper.

People are afraid and the proliferation of “fake news” has aggravated this anxiety.

As of Thursday last week, the global death toll had breached 22 000 while confirmed cases of coronavirus were threatening to breach half-a-million at 490 144.

The global community is faced with an unpredictable and highly dynamic situation.

In Zimbabwe, there are three confirmed cases, one death and several others under surveillance. Government has put in place measures to try and curb the spread of the virus.

But what does Covid-19 mean for people living with HIV?

The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/Aids (UNAIDS) maintains that there is currently no clear evidence that people living with HIV are at an increased risk of acquiring Covid-19 or of becoming more ill from it.

However, many people living with HIV are ageing and/or have other health conditions, including heart or lung diseases, which are known to make people susceptible to more severe Covid-19-related complications.

Although the risk of serious illness from Covid-19 for people living with HIV is not known, they may have concerns and questions related to this.

Below, the Centres for Disease Control (Zimbabwe) answers some of them:

Qn: Are people living with HIV at higher risk than other people in light of Covid-19?

Ans: At present there is no specific information about the risk of Covid-19 in people with HIV. The risk from immune suppression is not known. But with other viral respiratory infections, the risk for people with HIV getting very sick is greatest in people with a low CD4 cell count and people not on HIV treatment (antiretroviral therapy or ART).

People with HIV can also be at increased risk of getting very sick with Covid-19 based on their age and other medical conditions. There is currently no vaccine to prevent Covid-19.

Qn: What can people living with HIV do to protect themselves from Covid-19?

Ans: The best preventive measure is to avoid exposure to the virus. People with HIV should take everyday preventive actions to help avert the spread of Covid-19. They should also continue to maintain a healthy lifestyle. This includes eating right, getting at least eight hours of sleep and reducing stress as much as possible.

Staying healthy helps your immune system fight off infection should it occur. If you have HIV and are taking your HIV medicine, it is important to continue your treatment and follow the advice of your healthcare provider. This is the best way to keep your immune system healthy.

Qn: What else can people living with HIV do to protect themselves?

Ans: People living with HIV also have higher rates of certain underlying health conditions. Both increased age and these conditions can increase their risk for more severe illness if people with HIV get Covid-19. This applies especially to people with advanced HIV.

Steps that people with HIV can take to prepare in addition to what is recommended for everybody:

Have at least a 30-day supply of HIV medicine and any other medications or medical supplies needed for managing HIV. Maintain a social network remotely, such as online or by phone. This helps in staying socially connected and mentally healthy, which is especially important for people with HIV.

People with HIV can sometimes be more likely than others to need extra help, from friends, family, neighbours, community health workers and others. If they become sick, they should make sure they stay in touch with people who can help them.

With Covid-19, the response must not be fear and stigma. CDC is encouraging the need to build a culture of solidarity, trust and kindness.

Our response to Covid-19 must be grounded in the realities of people’s lives and focused on eliminating the barriers people face in being able to protect themselves and their communities. Countries are being urged to take decisive action to control the epidemic and provide necessary services and diagnostics to the people who need them, whether living with HIV or not.

Qn: What must one do if they suspect they have contracted Covid-19?

Ans: Call your health care provider if you develop symptoms that are consistent with Covid-19. Discuss how to get evaluated and how to avoid potentially exposing others to Covid-19.

Alternatively, you are advised to call the following Ministry of Health and Child Care toll-free hotline numbers for assistance: +263 714 734 593 or +263 774 112 531.

Shamiso Yikoniko is the technical advisor (advocacy and communications) for the Zimbabwe Association of Church-Related Hospitals (ZACH)