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The HIV/AIDS Centre at the Durban University of Technology recently hosted a webinar on Living Positively and Adhering to Treatment during COVID-19 on Microsoft Teams.

This webinar themed #HIV_LIVES_MATTER and #WE_ARE_IN_THIS_TOGETHER featured presentations from Professor Quarraisha Abdool Karim-South African epidemiologist and NRFA-rated scientist, Co-Founder and Associate Scientific Director of CAPRISA, Prof Ramneek Ahulawalia-Medical Doctor and Professor: CEO of Higher Health and Mr Oziel Mdletshe-Provincial Monitoring and Evaluation Coordinator of Higher Health and HIV/AIDS activist.

Facilitating the webinar was Ms Siphesihle Ngubo, Projects Officer at the HIV/AIDS Centre. A moment of silence to commemorate those who have lost their lives due to HIV and COVID-19 was spared before the webinar began. Welcoming the guests was Mr Sihle Mbanjwa, Senior Psychologist and Acting Director of Student Services at DUT.

Highlighting the purpose of the webinar, Mbanjwa said it was to explore the impacts that the COVID-19 pandemic has had in terms of the devastating effects on the communities and individuals.

“HIV in particular has a disproportionate impact on marginalised communities, but most importantly COVID-19 is affecting people with HIV in unique ways. The purpose of this webinar is to highlight challenges faced by people with chronic illnesses, in particular people living with HIV during COVID-19. Challenges with the healthcare system in relation to the timeous provision of treatment for people with chronic illness and HIV. We are also seeking to know the correlation between HIV and COVID-19. The Post School Education and Training (PSET) sector’s response to COVID-19 and vaccines, also the impact of COVID-19 on the mental health of students in general and in particular students living with HIV,” said Mbanjwa.

Giving the message of support, DUT Dean of Students, Dr Maditsane Nkonoane acknowledged the line-up of esteemed speakers who were going to share valuable insights. He said since the start of COVID-19, HIV related discourse was put in the back banner as many people sought to familiarise themselves with the unknown disease of COVID-19 and trying to formulate their response to it. Dr Nkonoane said he was glad of the line-up assembled, which will assist in affirming the little work that DUT does in response to HIV preventative measures. Dr Nkonoane also introduced the first speaker, Prof Karim, whom he said has made pioneering contributions over the past 32 years to preventing HIV transmission in adolescence girls and young women, including the landmark CAPRISA 004 Trial, that demonstrated for the first time that Antiretrovirals (ARVs) can prevent HIV infection.

Prof Karim said people are dealing with two pandemics which is COVID-19 and HIV. She said often when a new epidemic comes, people tend to forget about the other epidemics.

“With HIV, we have made a lots of progress. It is very important, particularly in Africa, we have heard about the intersection between poverty, race and gender, how that renders some communities more vulnerable than others. I will share data on the differential impacts it has in low middle income countries. I think with COVID-19 unlike HIV where in the late 90s and early 2000s, we saw the devastating impact of loss of lives, particularly of young people in their prime and life expectancy had come down to 42 years. Early in June we were paying tribute to 40 years of responding to the HIV epidemic. Looking at the theme of this webinar of living positively with HIV and COVID-19. It speaks to the importance of resilience in communities. In many African countries, despite the devastation being brought, its inspiring to see how communities have bounced back,” Prof Karim.

She also highlighted the approach towards HIV in KwaZulu-Natal and the impact of some of the responses had pre-COVID-19. She also touched on the impact of untreated HIV on COVID-19. In contrast to HIV, Prof Karim said multiple times in a day many people are keeping track on the number of COVID-19 infections. As of December 2019, Prof Karim said there are a 181 million cases with 3.1 billion deaths. She said many countries in Africa are experiencing the 3rd wave of COVID-19, which she compared to Mount Everest, saying large groups are getting infected quickly. Switching to HIV, Prof Karim said in 2019, worldwide, 38 million people were living with HIV.

“Despite us finding so much progress on testing HIV on treatment, we still have a 30% treatment gap. The most concerning factor is the number of new infections, we have 1.7 million of new infections, which is three times the 2020 rate. Put Africa in context, 1 in 5 people are living with HIV. Young women between 15 and 24 account for 1 in 4 people with new infections. In meeting our 2025 targets we have to build on the progress we have made, strengthen our prevention efforts and ensure we live no one behind to get us back on track on the 2030 targets. With COVID-19, we had other setback as a result of global attention focusing on COVID-19 and some of the other priorities falling behind,” said Prof Karim.

Furthermore, she explained that a lot of optimism on ending AIDS as a public health threat emanated from the expanded tool box, in terms of options that we have for preventing HIV infection. While waiting to be vaccinated, Prof Karim urged those living with HIV to always wear a mask, ensure social distancing and self-isolate if showing any signs of COVID-19. She said tertiary institutions are critical opportunities to enhance both HIV and COVID-19 responses. In closing she encourage tertiary institutions to be innovative and come up with solutions that will help with mental health and coping strategies in the face of both pandemics.

CEO of Higher Health, Prof Ramneek Ahulawalia spoke briefly on the impact of COVID-19 on the post school system, looking at the 360 view around COVID-19 which impacts the HIV pandemic. He said they also look at the mental health, Gender-Based violence, social distress poverty, academic stress and many more factors that have impacted the youth. He said they looked at the disease as an opportunity to scale up the HIV programmes in their services.

Introducing the Provincial Monitoring and Evaluation Coordinator of Higher Health and HIV/AIDS activist Mr Oziel Mdletshe, Mrs Thobile Zulu, HIV/AIDS Centre Manager said Mdletshe is a former employee of her department. She said he advocates for the rights of people living with HIV and has been living openly with HIV for the past 24 years.

Mdletshe shared his experience as a person living with HIV, who has also been affected by COVID-19.

“I will flag two issues with regards to HIV and COVID-19, in terms of challenges in order to adhere to treatment and stigma. People living with HIV appear to be at an increased risk of more several outcomes from COVID-19 compared with other people. People living with HIV should be vaccinated against COVID-19 regardless of their CD4 count or viral load, this is what I am lobbying for as well. HIV should be included in the category of high risk medical conditions when developing vaccines. We continue to study how HIV and COVID-19 together affect people living with HIV. The challenges that young people or students living with HIV face is stigma. Majority of students who take ARVs do not have treatment supporters and we have to think about how do we ensure that students adhere to treatment and comply with the COVID-19 restrictions,” said Mdletshe.

He said as much as he is taking HIV treatment and his viral load is suppressed he was affected by COVID-19. Mdletshe said he conquered COVID-19 because his viral load is suppressed and he was also able to attend the healthcare immediately when the symptoms were exposed. He said these are the things that people need to consider when thinking of HIV and COVID-19.

Giving the vote of thanks, Zulu thanked the presenters for their informative presentations and the guests for their support and meaningful contributions.

Pictured: Professor Quarraisha Abdool Karim.

Simangele Zuma

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