The decline in new HIV infections is levelling off and climbing in parts of Asia and the Pacific where they previously had been falling, according to the United Nations agency leading the AIDS fight. Image Credit: Gulf News

Remember Rock Hudson? The American actor was the first major celebrity to die from AIDS (Acquired Immuno-Deficiency Syndrome). Many others, including Queen lead singer Freddie Mercury, US Wimbledon champion Arthur Ashe and Soviet ballet dancer Rudolph Nureyev, died in the following years. They all were felled by HIV (human immune-deficiency virus).

HIV/AIDS is one of the world’s most fatal infectious diseases. Annually, around 1 million people die from the disease, and it’s the leading cause of death in some countries. So far, more than 40 million have died of illnesses related to AIDS.

Over the years, intensive research has led to newer medications that helped HIV patients live long and relatively healthy lives. That has led to a global decline in the rate of new infections since the mid-1990s.

The response to the AIDS pandemic has been derailed by global crises from the colliding pandemics of HIV and COVID to the war in Ukraine and the resulting global economic crisis.

- Winnie Byanyima, executive director of UNAIDS

The UN goal to eliminate AIDS by 2030 seems unlikely as the progress in the fight against AIDS stalled in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a report by the United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS). This has set off alarm bells.

Matthew Kavanaugh, deputy executive director of UNAIDS, said: “This is an alarm to the world to say that COVID-19 has blown the AIDS response significantly off track.”

A change in health priorities

As the world battled the pandemic in the last two years, nations marshalled their resources to get the COVID-19 vaccination programme rolling. The fight against AIDS got less attention, with HIV testing slowing down or stopping in some places. The result was a sharp rise in HIV cases in 2022 in parts of Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and the Pacific — the very places they had been falling pre-COVID.

This is alarming. It puts a question mark on the UN’s goal of limiting new HIV infections to fewer than 370,000 by 2025. Last year more than 1.5 million people were infected with HIV, and around 650,000 people died from AIDS-related illnesses, the UN report found.

While the physical and immediate disruption caused by COVID-19 in sectors like business, lifestyle and supply-chain are visible and talked about, it is in critical areas like HIV and cancer treatment that the pandemic has hit silently. The extraordinary headwinds threaten the world’s responses to these deadly diseases and present us with a new health crisis.

“The response to the AIDS pandemic has been derailed by global crises from the colliding pandemics of HIV and COVID to the war in Ukraine and the resulting global economic crisis,” Winnie Byanyima, executive director of UNAIDS, added.

Aids facts
Image Credit: Vijith Pulikkal/Gulf News

According to the UN report, new HIV infections have been reported from Eastern Europe, Central Asia, the Middle East, North Africa and Latin America. Bucking previous declines, the rise was most noticeable in Asia and the Pacific. More than 38.4 million people were living with HIV in 2021 worldwide.

With millions of students out of school, experts are worried that the young face increased exposure to HIV. The latest UN findings point at young women and adolescent girls disproportionately impacted by the rise in HIV cases, with a new infection occurring in this demographic every two minutes.

As high-income countries continue to hold back critical aid, especially during the last two years, the most vulnerable groups quickly become at risk. A whopping 70 per cent of cases were found in key populations: sex workers and their clients, men who have sex with men and people who inject drugs.

When the COVID battle took centre stage, access to life-saving AIDS treatment was affected as it grew at the slowest rate in over a decade. The UN says the HIV response in low- and middle-income countries is $8 billion short of the amount needed by 2025. That’s not good news when national economies suffer amid fears of a looming recession. With monkeypox thrown into the mix, governments show weariness and a degree of caution when it comes to AIDS funding.

Anthony Fauci, the top US infectious disease official, said he was worried that fatigue over HIV was holding back resource allocation. The UN has voiced concern, saying that getting HIV back on the radar is twice as hard.

COVID seems to have wiped away some of the gains made over the last 40 years in the fight against HIV.

Aids data
Image Credit: Vijith Pulikkal/Gulf News

Here’s an explainer on AIDS/HIV.

What is AIDS?

AIDS or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome refers to a collection of symptoms and infections caused by HIV. An HIV infection damages or kills immune cells, leaving the person vulnerable to various infections and illnesses, including pneumonia and cancer. When a person with HIV loses a large number of immune cells, they are diagnosed with AIDS.

How is HIV transmitted?

HIV can spread through the exchange of body fluids from infected people, such as blood, breast milk, semen and vaginal secretions. It can also be transmitted from a mother to her child during pregnancy and delivery.

People cannot be infected through regular contact, sharing personal objects or food and water, according to an advisory from the World Health Organisation. Sharing contaminated needles, syringes, and other injecting equipment carries significant risk. So does blood transfusions, tissue transplantation and medical procedures that involve unsterile cutting or piercing

How do you know if you are infected?

Some people may develop mild, temporary flu-like symptoms or persistently swollen glands. A person may look and feel healthy even if they are infected. The only way to know is to get tested.

Is there a cure for HIV?

Although researchers have worked on it for years, there is still no cure for HIV infection. But new medications are helping many infected people live normal, healthier lives.

How many patients have been cured of HIV?

Only a handful have been cured of HIV. They have received a stem cell or a bone marrow transplant from a donor with a rare genetic mutation resistant to HIV.

In 2007, Timothy Ray Brown, “the Berlin patient,” was the first to be cured of HIV. In 2019, “the London patient” appeared to have been cured by a stem cell transplant. A “Dusseldorf patient” also showed no signs of HIV after a similar procedure.

On Wednesday, researchers reported that the oldest patient has been cured of HIV after receiving a stem cell transplant for leukaemia. The 66-year-old is called the “City of Hope” patient after the facility in Duarte, California, where he was treated.