Pretoria – People living with HIV are at no greater risk of dying of the coronavirus than the general population as long as they don’t default on treatment, Netcare HIV clinician Dr Kairoonisha Mahomed has said.
The medic was reacting to concerns that the virus was harder on people living with underlying health conditions.
He said HIV-positive individuals who remained on treatment and whose viral loads were at undetectable levels, were likely to be at no greater risk of being hit harder by Covid-19.
Mahomed, who has been treating patients and training nurses and doctors for more than 10 years, said HIV-positive people must ensure they take their Antiretrovirals (ARVs) during the pandemic. She said there had been some cases in which HIV-positive individuals stopped taking them and developed tuberculosis, resulting in them having to be admitted to hospital for treatment.
This underscored how vulnerable an individual could be to opportunistic infections such as TB and Covid-19 if they stopped or did not receive treatment, she said.
HIV activist and general secretary of the Treatment Action Campaign, Anele Yawa, said it was urgently calling in people living with the virus to ensure they continued with treatment during this pandemic.
“We’ve not established what is the core relationship between Covid-19, HIV, and TB, but what we know is that people who have a compromised immune system have a lower chance of surviving the coronavirus.
“We know that in South Africa right now there are over 7 million people living with HIV, and that can be broken into 5 million who are taking treatment and 2 million who are not. We are therefore calling on those who are not taking treatment for various reasons to please do so.”
A man who has been living with HIV for seven years said: “These reports and articles drawing links between HIV and the coronavirus have been very stressful to me even if I still take my treatment.
“Nobody really wants to die, especially when you take your treatment and try your best to eat healthily.”
Another HIV-positive patient said: “The problem with people who don’t take treatment is that they’re the ones who don’t really like to read or watch the news.
“These are the same people who have to be chased by door-to-door community health-care workers just to take their treatment properly.”
Mahomed said: “The treatment and management of HIV has improved in leaps and bounds in recent years, to such an extent it’s become a highly manageable chronic condition.
“And while there’s much that we’re still learning about the Covid-19 virus, there’s no reason to believe that a properly managed HIV-positive individual whose viral load is suppressed is at any greater risk from Covid-19 than the rest of the population.
“On the other hand, HIV positive individuals who are not receiving treatment, or who have stopped taking their antiretroviral medicines during the lockdown, are likely to be at a greater risk of contracting serious Covid-19 infection, or of developing other HIV associated conditions such as TB.”
She said reports suggesting thousands of people in Gauteng failed to collect their ARV medicines during the lockdown period were deeply concerning.
By James Mahlokwane