Over the last two decades, new HIV infections have fallen by nearly 40%, marking significant development in the effort to eliminate the virus. But a new report by UNICEF warns that children are being left behind in the fight against HIV.
Last year, 320,000 children and adolescents were newly infected, bringing the total number of children living with HIV to 2.8 million, according to the report. The number of new infections among children and young people under the age of 20 last year averaged out to 1 case every 100 seconds.
Published Wednesday, the UNICEF report also revealed that only about half of children worldwide had access to life-saving treatment in 2019. This percentage lags significantly behind coverage for both mothers (85%) and all adults living with HIV (62%). As a result, nearly 110,000 children died of AIDS last year.
“Children are still getting infected at alarming rates, and they are still dying from AIDS,” UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore said in a press release. “This was even before COVID-19 interrupted vital HIV treatment and prevention services putting countless more lives at risk.”
Around the world, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused supply chain disruptions that have led to shortages in life-saving HIV services. Lockdowns have also made it more difficult for people to get tested and for those infected to show up for lab tests and doctor’s visits.
A recent UNICEF survey has shown that one third of high-priority HIV countries are experiencing reduced service coverage for children, adolescents, and women living with and vulnerable to HIV as a result of the pandemic.
In April and May, when lockdowns were in full effect in many countries around the world, HIV testing and treatment for children declined by up to 70% in some countries, with new treatment coverage falling by up to 50%
These inconsistencies could undo years of progress in the fight to end HIV/AIDS. Without consistent treatment, people with HIV can get sicker and develop drug-resistant forms of the disease, leading to higher risks of death.
A UNAIDS study found that a six-month disruption in antiretroviral therapy (ART) could lead to half a million additional AIDS-related deaths in sub-Saharan Africa. A similar disruption for HIV-positive pregnant women could cause the disease to pass to their babies and increase infections in children by more than 100% in Zimbabwe, Uganda, and Malawi.
Thankfully, there has been a rebound of services in recent months due to the easing of COVID-19 restrictions and strategic targeting of children and pregnant mothers.
“There are glimmers of hope and progress, as momentum on HIV prevention for adolescent girls and young women has been accelerating in key affected countries,” researchers wrote in the report. “However, much remains to be done. To achieve the global AIDS targets by 2030, ensuring rights to health and protection for young key populations is non-negotiable.”
The report highlights regional disparities that exist in terms of ART coverage among children. While coverage in the Middle East and North Africa has reached an impressive 81%, only 32% of children receive ART coverage in West and Central Africa.
Children in Latin America and the Caribbean also have a low rate of coverage at 46%, followed by 50% in East Asia and the Pacific, 58% in Eastern and Southern Africa, and 76% in South Asia.
“Only through global partnership and real dialogue among partners can we reimagine a more resilient HIV response in a world living with COVID-19,” the report concluded.
Even as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to affect countries around the world, it’s crucial for the international community to get health care back on track for children, adolescents, and pregnant women living with and vulnerable to HIV. Ensuring that the next generation of leaders can grow up healthy and live out their potentials is key to ending extreme poverty.