The emergence of the COVID 19 omicron variant, has continued to rage, with attendant consequences. The situation is posing an even greater strain on progress with ending AIDS, disrupting HIV prevention and treatment services, schooling, violence prevention programmes and more.
Bold action to stop COVID 19, mitigate its impact on the global agenda for ending AIDS while preparing for future pandemics is urgent.
“There is a pressing need to address the inequalities fueling the twin pandemics of HIV and COVID-19 including stronger support for community-led responses, policies driven by science and data, increased investment in the HIV response and, putting HIV at the center of pandemic preparedness and response”, said Caroline Olwande, the Advisor Global Fund/PEPFAR of UNAIDS.
“Partnerships between the Government of Nigeria, Development partners, Civil Society actors including communities of People Living with HIV (PLHIV) are central to success”, she continued.
The Network of PLHIV in Nigeria in partnership and collaboration with the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS, through WHO and UNAIDS, kicked off a sensitization and mobilization exercise for increased COVID-19 vaccinations among PLHIV through its network support groups.;
While receiving the COVID-19 vaccine in Abuja recently, twenty-year-old John Audu who was born with HIV narrated that he advocates for COVID-19 vaccine as well as HIV testing in his school and community. John is currently in the University and aspires to be a medical practitioner in the future solely to help people living with HIV (PLHIV) and to curtail mother to child transmission. John draws daily inspiration from his personal experience to support HIV prevention efforts in Nigeria. “I want to enlighten people about this virus to help reduce mother to child transmission especially with the discrimination we are going through. People like me have no fault at all but not everyone understands,” he said. Like many PLHIV, John was hesitant to take the COVID-19 vaccine but was convinced after attending the sensitization sessions organized by NEPWHAN, UNAIDS and WHO.
There have been reports of fear and vaccine hesitancy among PLHIV due to concerns on safety and potential negative effects on their already compromised immune status and interactions with antiretroviral treatment (ART), compromising their treatment outcomes. Through the sensitization sessions that have been cascaded to the state level, initially targeting 15 states of Lagos, Ogun, Oyo, Delta, Rivers, Akwa Ibom, Ebonyi, Kano, Kaduna, Edo, Gombe, Borno, Sokoto and Bauchi, there has been increased awareness of safety among PLHIV resulting in willingness to take the COVID 19 vaccine.
“There was low awareness. A lot of PLHIV were not aware of the importance of the vaccine. Most of them didn’t even know they are supposed to take it. There was a lot of hesitancy before we started these activities” said Mr Abdulkadir Ibrahim the National Coordinator of NEPWHAN. “I am glad that we are able to convince most of our members about the COVID-19 vaccination. I can assure you that over 90% of PLHIV in Nigeria have accepted and taken the vaccine. We have only a little left now. This is all made possible with the support of WHO” he added.
There are currently 1.8 million PLHIV in Nigeria, 1.5 million of whom are on life saving antiretroviral ART. Since COVID 19 vaccination began early in 2021, more than 3% of the eligible population has been fully vaccinated.
Joshua Badmus a 24-year-old student born with HIV also narrates his ordeal: “I am the first child out of four and the only HIV positive child. My parents got to find out about their status after I was born so they made sure they do not have any other positive child. All my siblings are negative”. Joshua narrated further that his family were also hesitant to take the COVID-19 vaccine but were eventually convinced when they were sensitized by the NEPWHAN associates. Joshua now understands the importance of the vaccine and is determined to ensure others living with HIV also benefit. “I want to call on people especially mothers to make sure they get tested whenever they are pregnant to prevent mother to child transmission. This virus we have is completely avoidable. We should also do better in taking the COVID-19 vaccine as we are at a higher risk due to compromised immunity”, he said.
PLHIV can have a greater prevalence of the known risk factors for COVID-19 acquisition and complications, such as heart disease, kidney disease, diabetes, chronic pulmonary disease, obesity, as well as, other comorbidities and co-infections, like tuberculosis. Clinical data suggest that the risk of developing severe or fatal COVID-19 was 30% greater in PLHIV compared to people without HIV infection. All vaccines currently on the market can be used safely among people living with HIV regardless of CD4 count and/or viral load suppression status.