Last week saw the first global decline in newly reported cases of COVID-19 since September, the head of the UN World Health Organization (WHO) said on Monday, advising that the news, while welcome, must be interpreted with “extreme caution”.
Updating reporters during his regular briefing from Geneva, Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus described the global decline as fragile: brought on by falling cases in Europe, thanks to the difficult but necessary measures countries put in place in recent weeks.
"The pandemic has taught that in the face of an urgent health threat, the 🌍 can come together in new ways to defeat it.— World Health Organization (WHO) (@WHO) November 30, 2020
For many people, the pandemic is a source of fear – but it can also be a source of hope that we can defeat #COVID19, & we can defeat #HIV"-@DrTedros
“Gains can easily be lost,” the agency chief said, noting that COVID-19 is still on the rise in most other world regions, with an attendant increase in deaths.
Holidays – no time for complacency
He cautioned against complacency, especially with the holiday season approaching in many cultures and countries. Being with family and friends is not worth placing anyone at risk. “We all need to consider whose life we might be gambling with in the decisions we make.”
To be sure, the pandemic will change the way people celebrate, Tedros said. It will be important to follow local and national guidelines. For many, this is a season for staying home, avoiding crowded shopping centres, or ideally, making use of online shopping if possible. “Avoid gatherings with many different households and families coming together,” he said.
If travelling is essential, take precautions, he said: maintain distance from others and wear a mask in airports and train stations, as well as on planes, trains and buses. Cary hand sanitiser or wash hands frequently with soap and water. If feeling unwell, “don’t travel,” he insisted.
Disrupted services, increased risks for people living with HIV
For millions, COVID-19 is only one health they face, he said. People living with HIV also may have an increased risk of severe disease or death from COVID-19, he said.
A record 26 million people are on antiretroviral treatment – but the pace of increase has slowed, leaving 12 million people who are living with HIV without treatment. “12 million is big,” he assured.
A WHO survey of 127 countries earlier this year found that more than one quarter reported partial disruption to antiretroviral treatment.
However, with support from WHO, the number of countries reporting disruptions in HIV services has declined by almost 75 per cent since June. Only nine still report disruptions and only 12 report a critically low stock of antiretroviral medicines.
Such successes are mainly due to countries implementing WHO guidelines, he said, including providing longer antiretroviral prescriptions for 3 to 6 months, so patients can avoid health facilities. WHO also has worked closely with manufacturers and partners to ensure adequate supply of treatment.
Innovation, Innovation, Innovation
Moreover, he said countries also have introduced adaptations and innovations during COVID-19. In Africa, for example, many have built their testing system for COVID-19 on the existing lab infrastructure for HIV and tuberculosis. In Thailand, the Government has maintained pre-exposure prophylaxis services and tele-health counselling for men who have sex with men. And many countries have introduced more self-testing for HIV to support self-care.
WHO is urging all countries to maintain these innovations as part of the “new normal”, Tedros said, and to help expand testing and treatment.
With Worlds AIDS Day approaching on 1 December, he called for preserving the “incredible” gains made over the past 10 years: New HIV infections have declined by 23 per cent since 2010, and AIDS-related deaths have fallen by 39 per cent.
Hope above all
“If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that in the face of an urgent health threat, the world can come together in new ways to defeat it,” he assured.
The world can defeat the pandemic using existing tools and the vaccines now in the pipeline. “The most important thing is, we need to have hope,” he said. And solidarity to work together.