A World Health Organization (WHO) and UNAIDS group estimated Monday that if COVID-19 health services interruptions are not mitigated, a six-month disruption of antiretroviral therapy could trigger more than 500,000 extra deaths from AIDS-related illnesses.

A modeling group convened by the WHO and UNAIDS released its estimate on a failure to mitigate and overcome interruptions in health services and supplies during the current pandemic.

“A six-month disruption of antiretroviral therapy could lead to more than 500 000 extra deaths from AIDS-related illnesses, including from tuberculosis, in sub-Saharan Africa in 2020–2021,” said WHO and UNAIDS in a joint statement.

In 2018, an estimated 470,000 people died of AIDS-related deaths in the region.

“The terrible prospect of half a million more people in Africa dying of AIDS-related illnesses is like stepping back into history,” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO Director-General.

“We must read this as a wake-up call to countries to identify ways to sustain all vital health services.”

He noted that for HIV, some countries were already taking the necessary steps.

These include, for example, ensuring that people can collect bulk packs of treatment, and other essential commodities, including self-testing kits, from drop-off points, which relieves pressure on health services and the health workforce.

“We must also ensure that global supplies of tests and treatments continue to flow to the countries that need them,” noted Tedros.

The two health bodies said that many different reasons could cause services to be interrupted.

“The COVID-19 pandemic must not be an excuse to divert investment from HIV,” said Winnie Byanyima, the UNAIDS executive director.

“There is a risk that the hard-earned gains of the AIDS response will be sacrificed to the fight against COVID-19, but the right to health means that no one disease should be fought at the expense of the other.”

WHO and UNAIDS urged countries to take action now as the impact of a six-month disruption of antiretroviral therapy could effectively set the clock on AIDS-related deaths back to 2008.

In that year, sub-Saharan Africa observed more than 950,000 AIDS-related deaths.

WHO and UNAIDS said people would continue to die from the disruption in large numbers for at least another five years, with an annual average excess in deaths of 40% over the next half a decade.

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