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UN: COVID-19 Setting Back AIDS Fight Amid 'Staggering' Surge In East European, Central Asian Infections


A doctor collects a blood sample for an HIV test in Moscow. (file photo)

The United Nations says the coronavirus pandemic is disrupting treament for many and jeopardizing years of progress in the battle against HIV/AIDS, a stark warning for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, which together have seen "a staggering" increase in new HIV infections.

Restrictions imposed to stem the spread of the coronavirus could lead to more than half a million deaths as they hinder the fight against HIV infection in females by limiting their access to education and protection from sexual violence, the Joint United Nations Program on HIV and AIDS (UNAIDS) said in a study published on July 6.

Such a situation could prove damaging for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, where a 72 percent rise in new infections has been recorded since 2010.

The report, titled "Seizing the Moment," said that with governments focusing on tackling the pandemic, attention and resources have also shifted away from protecting vulnerable populations from HIV, the virus that can lead to acquired immune deficiency syndrome, or AIDS.

"Our progress towards ending AIDS as a public health threat by 2030 was already off track before the COVID-19 outbreak. Now this crisis has the potential to blow us even further off course," Winnie Byanyima, UNAIDS executive director, said in the report.

A six-month disruption in treatment against the virus could cause more than 500,000 additional deaths in sub-Saharan Africa alone over the next year, bringing the region back to 2008 AIDS mortality levels, the report warned.

'Urgent Need To Scale Up'

The report noted that Eastern Europe and Central Asia is one of only three regions where the HIV epidemic is growing, with an incidence:prevalence ratio of 10.1, higher than in any other region in 2019.

"There is an urgent need to scale up HIV prevention services, especially in the Russian Federation, and there is a large gap between HIV testing and treatment initiation," it said..

The report said millions of lives have been saved by the scale-up of antiretroviral therapy that suppresses HIV and stops the progression of AIDS.

Still, 690,000 people died of AIDS-related illnesses last year and 12.6 million of the 38 million people living with HIV were not accessing the life-saving treatment.

And with some 1.7 million people newly infected with the virus, the report said the world is "far behind" in preventing new HIV infections.

New HIV infections have also risen by more than 20 percent in the Middle East, North Africa, and Latin America.

Last year, funding for HIV fell by 7 percent from 2017, meaning that financing fell one-third short of the $26.2 billion needed to effectively respond to HIV in 2020, UNAIDS said.

With reporting by AP and Reuters
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