Prepared by Professor Alan Whiteside, OBE, Chair of Global Health Policy, BSIA, Waterloo, Canada & Professor Emeritus, University of KwaZulu-Natal – www.alan-whiteside.com
Yesterday, 1st December, was a significant day in the annual global health calendar: World AIDS Day. Until this year, AIDS was the pandemic dominating global thinking, activism, and response. It is the disease I began working on in 1987. I looked at migrant workers travelling to South Africa to work in mines, on farms and in industry. The majority were men. They travelled on annual contracts and mainly lived in single sex hostels away from wives and families. The ideal environment for a sexually transmitted infection to spread.
HIV, the virus that caused AIDS, was first noted in New York and San Francisco in 1981. A classic book tracking the emergence of HIV is ‘And the band played on’ by Randy Shilts.1 As the numbers of infected people rose dramatically globally it became clear, in most of the world, specific groups were bearing the burden of the disease: men who had sex with men; people who used drugs intravenously; recipients of untested blood and blood products; and female sex workers. There are areas with generalised epidemics, in particular Africa, where the Southern cone is the epicentre.
In the 1980s our source of data was surveys of pregnant women. We watched in horror as infection rates rose dramatically, up to 40%. Initially there was no treatment. Hundreds and thousands of people fell ill and died as their immune systems were overwhelmed. The arrival of treatment, antiretroviral drugs, in 1996 was game changing. The HIV and AIDS world faces two challenges: reducing the number of new infections and ensuring people access and stick to treatment.
In 2018 there were 37.9 million people living with HIV, including 1.7 million children. This gives a global prevalence of 0.8% among adults and 21% do not know that they are infected. It is estimated that an additional 32 million people have died of aids related illnesses. To date there have been just over 63 million cases and just under 1.5 million deaths of Covid-19. The number of cases will greatly exceed those of AIDS, the number of deaths should, fortunately, remain lower. Whilst both diseases are zoonotic retroviruses, there are differences, the main one being most recover from Covid-19.
AIDS played an important role in our response to Covid-19. The scientific advances in immunology, virology, vaccine development and a host of other disciplines meant that a great deal of basic knowledge was there already. Public health institutions and health workers were able to pivot. The effect of Covid-19 on AIDS is less beneficial. It has drawn attention and resources away from a deadly disease. As you read this week’s blog be aware of the many other health issues faced by people, especially those in the developing world. I know most about AIDS hence this introduction. There are many other needs: malaria, tuberculosis, hepatitis and numerous childhood diseases.