World AIDS Day: Drop in HIV screening amid COVID-19 outbreak can take collateral toll, warns doctor

New Delhi: The screenings for Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) have dropped by over 40-45 per cent approximately since April, just around the time the COVID-19 pandemic hit India, as compared to previous years, said a senior doctor on Tuesday (December 1, 2020), on the World AIDS Day. This can take a very costly collateral toll on India`s fight against the COVID-19 and other infectious diseases as patients suffering from Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) already have compromised immunity, according to experts.

India has the third-highest number of estimated people living with HIV in the world. The estimated number of people living with HIV/AIDS in India was 2.08 million (20.9 lakh) in 2011, out of which an enormous 86 per cent was in 15-49 years age group.

Dr Sharad Malhotra, Senior Consultant and Head of Department (Gastroenterologist) at Akash Healthcare, told ANI about the current screening scenario of HIV. 

“In our hospital, the screening for HIV has been restricted to routine processes and fresh admissions. The screening for HIV is done only for the high-risk population, that is, commercial sex workers and IV drug addicts undergoing programmes with NGOs,” he said.

Asked about the reasons for the fall in the screening, he told ANI, “It is the fear of getting the coronavirus on stepping out. Most people`s therapy has been put on hold due to the COVID-19; people are taking less preventive medications.”

“If the preventive medications aren`t followed and they get exposed to a person with HIV, they are put on post-exposure prophylaxis (medication for three-four weeks to stop the virus from spreading). There has been difficulty in accessing these medications,” Dr Malhotra added.

Dr Malhotra extended his concerns for people suffering from AIDS as they become more vulnerable to contract the COVID-19 and still be unknown about how they can affect a large number of people affected by the latest virus.

HIV causes AIDS that severely compromises a person`s ability to fight any disease.

“People living with AIDS are also likely to develop co-infections and associated diseases and strict adherence to antiretroviral regimens (ARVs) is the only solution they have,” he said.

The deadly disease cannot be cured, although antiretroviral treatment can control the virus, meaning people with HIV can live long and healthy lives.

To prevent the infection, Dr Malhotra suggests that one must insist on the use of disposable syringes for diagnostic tests, especially before getting pregnant, and practice safe sex. 

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