HIV and Covid-19 – what we know thus far and how you can stay safe_1

This is the second deadly global pandemic that I have experienced in my 47 years on this earth. HIV was the first and that didn’t turn out well for me. Not long after I turned 25, I contracted HIV. Much like our current situation, it was a time of great fear, countless deaths, lack of treatment and misinformation. So, when news emerged that HIV-positive persons are among those at increased risk of death from the Novel Coronavirus (Covid-19), I thought this is the end. However, my need for answers soon outweighed my fear of death and I started sifting through...
This is the second deadly global pandemic that I have experienced in my 47 years on this earth. HIV was the first and that didn’t turn out well for me. Not long after I turned 25, I contracted HIV.

Much like our current situation, it was a time of great fear, countless deaths, lack of treatment and misinformation.

So, when news emerged that HIV-positive persons are among those at increased risk of death from the Novel Coronavirus (Covid-19), I thought this is the end.

However, my need for answers soon outweighed my fear of death and I started sifting through the news wires and calling around for the latest updates – and a clear indication of just how vulnerable HIV-positive people really are.

Initial messaging was that all people with HIV or those with other underlying medical conditions will be hardest-hit by Covid-19. In a country where more than 7 million people are positive, some experts are concerned.

Speaking to The Citizen, Ashraf Booley, the president of the Impulse Cape Town office, which advocates for gay rights and other essential services says: “Considering that South Africa has the biggest HIV prevalence rate in the world, about 7.7 million people, it is critical that we have drastic measures and adherence in place to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, particularly in our high-risk population.”

Booley said that although there was no evidence suggesting that the coronavirus will affect people living with HIV differently, the amount of uncertainty surrounding the disease — particularly in relation to HIV — was concerning.

Although the initial statement was that all people with HIV would buckle under the new Covid-19 pandemic, the message has now changed to say that those on ARVs who are undetectable and have a healthy CD4 count (500 or more) have a fighting chance.

Of course, this is not a silver bullet and would have to be in combination with all the other recommendations, such maintaining a distance of 1.8 metres between yourself and another person when in public, proper hand-washing for 20 seconds with soap and running water, and hand sanitiser use.

Even when adhering to these hygienic and distancing recommendations, Booley and other NGOs are urging people with HIV to be extra cautious.

“Due to the uncertainty, we have to treat it as if those living with HIV are likely to become more severely ill with Covid-19. We therefore urge immuno-compromised persons to take extra caution.”

He advises HIV-positive people to continue taking their ARVs correctly every day and says it’s now more important than ever before to get tested for HIV if you do not know your status.

“If the result is positive, please start treatment as soon as possible. You are at increased risk if you have a low CD4 count. Antiretroviral treatment will improve your CD4 count and strengthen your immune system.”

When it comes to accessing free ARVs and testing in South Africa many rely on government clinics and donor-funded clinics such as the Ivan Thom’s Centre and Engage Men’s Health, both of whom have put measures in place to prevent their patients becoming infected with Covid-19 while accessing services or collecting their ARVs.

In a statement issued on their Facebook page on Friday, Engage Men’s Health said as they faced the threat of the coronavirus, the well-being of their patients, staff members and community was of critical importance.

“We will continue to provide our usual HIV and sexual health services for now, although we will be limiting the scale of services. We will be limiting the number of staff in the field and at our clinic/offices.

Engage further states they will ensure that only one client at a time will wait in our reception area. Other clients are asked to remain in the covered area outside with safe distancing until it is their turn to be seen.

“If you are concerned that you have coronavirus or have symptoms, please call the national coronavirus hotline for further advice and support on 0800 029 999.”

Similarly, Booley said if you were currently receiving ARVs from The Ivan Toms Centre for Men’s Health in Cape Town, they advise that you collect your medication from the clinic as usual and they will try to give you more than a month’s supply at a time during the coronavirus pandemic.

Just like Engage, the clinic said that if you were unwell and think you may have symptoms of the coronavirus, it was best to call the Covid-19 hotline number and rather send a trusted person with your appointment card to collect your medication on your behalf.

As a sex-positive group, Impulse Cape Town is also advising members of the public to urgently make changes to their love and sex lives.

“For instance, sexual partners living outside of your household and random hook-ups shouldn’t be an option during this time. Now is the time to love yourself, play with yourself, and consider options such as phone sex, among other safer sex options,” said Booley.

He says more information about sexual safety and sex advice, people can log onto Impulse Cape Town’s social media pages over the next few weeks.

“Remember to continue practicing good hand and respiratory hygiene, and most importantly, social distancing and self-isolation where possible. It is important that we take our government and the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) recommendations around Covid-19 seriously if we’re going to beat this epidemic together,” said Booley.

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