BY PHYLLIS MBANJE
HEALTH experts have called for prioritisation of people living with HIV in the COVID-19 vaccination rollout programme following revelations by the World Health Organisation (WHO) that the group was at high risk of suffering severe illness as a result of the respiratory virus.
This was revealed yesterday during a virtual Press briefing ahead of the International Aids Society (IAS) conference on HIV science which will kick off in Berlin, Germany, on Sunday.
Previous evidence regarding the impact of HIV infection on the severity and mortality of COVID-19 has been limited and sometimes conflicting and most analyses have been based on relatively small cohorts of individuals in specific settings.
Informed by these findings, the IAS called on countries to add people living with HIV to the list of groups prioritised in vaccine rollout efforts.
“This study underscores the importance of countries including all people living with HIV in the list of priority populations for national COVID-19 vaccine programmes,” IAS president and IAS 2021 international co-chair Adeeba Kamarulzaman said.
“The global community must also do much more to bring COVID-19 vaccines to countries around the world with high prevalence of HIV and other diseases. It is unacceptable that as of today, less than 3% of the entire African continent has received a single dose of the vaccine and less than 1,5% has received both doses.”
In the report, WHO researchers analysed clinical data submitted to WHO global clinical platforms for COVID-19 from 24 countries on more than 15 500 people living with HIV who were hospitalised for COVID-19.
The mean age of these patients was 45,5 years. About 37% were male, and about 92% had received antiretroviral therapy and about 36% had severe or critical COVID-19 illness on admission. Their most common underlying chronic conditions were hypertension, diabetes and obesity.
Among patients with a known outcome, 23% died in hospital. The study team determined that HIV infection was associated with an increased risk of severe or critical COVID-19 presentation.
This new development will pose a huge challenge for people living with HIV in Zimbabwe since the vaccination process is characterised by queues with many people being turned away.
While President Emmerson Mnangagwa said the government is expected to vaccinate one million people during the two weeks of the extended lockdown, the pace on the ground and the availability of the vaccines are questionable.