The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) says annual deaths from AIDS-related illnesses declined by 37 per cent from 2010 through 2019 in Caribbean countries, while new yearly infections from the HIV virus dropped by 29 per cent.
PAHO said that increased testing and improvement in the delivery of lifelong antiretroviral treatment led to the decline in annual deaths from about 11,000 in 2010 to 6,900 in 2019.
The decline in infections resulted from various preventive measures, including use of medications taken before and after contact with someone with HIV, which are known as PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) and PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis).
PAHO said the number of infections dropped from about 18,000 in 2010 to 13,000 in 2019.
“In the last decade, the Caribbean countries have made significant progress in controlling HIV and AIDS,” said PAHO Director, Dr Carissa Etienne, adding “however, the COVID-19 pandemic is now endangering this hard-won success”.
“We must work harder to move forward along the road to entirely eliminating AIDS, which causes untold human suffering,” she urged.
Dr Etienne said the continuing stigma around HIV and AIDS, as well as unequal access to health services, also deter progress toward eliminating the disease.
PAHO said that it has evidence that, since the pandemic struck, the number of people being tested for HIV in both the Caribbean and Latin America has dropped.
In the first six months of 2020, PAHO said there were about 4,000 fewer diagnoses of HIV in eight Caribbean and Latin American nations – Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Peru and St Lucia – than there were in the first six months of 2019.
PAHO said the decline in testing means that people with undiagnosed HIV are unaware of their situation and not getting lifesaving antiretroviral treatment, potentially exposing others to HIV transmission.
“COVID-19 poses a clear challenge to HIV prevention, testing, treatment and health care services,” said Cesar Nuñez, Regional Director for UNAIDS.
“Any slowing down in provision of these services will leave many vulnerable populations at greater risk of HIV infection and AIDS-related death.
“Luckily, there are strategies to respond to these challenges, including self-testing and dispensing multiple months of medication at a time, which reduce the number of visits that patients must make to their health care providers. But we must make sure these strategies are being implemented,” he added.
The World Health Organization (WHO) and PAHO have recommended self-testing as a key strategy for reaching the UN goal of having 90 per cent of people with HIV know their status.