(PANCAP Coordinating Unit, CARICOM Secretariat): The Pan-Caribbean Partnership against HIV and AIDS (PANCAP), the mechanism that provides a structured and unified approach to the Caribbean’s response to the HIV epidemic, urges partners and stakeholders to ensure the continuity of treatment, care and support services for People Living with HIV (PLHIV) during the COVID-19 Pandemic.
According to Dr Rosmond Adams, Director, PANCAP, the Pandemic threatens to undo the gains made in the last ten years of the Region’s HIV response. He further noted that any disruption to care and treatment could pose significant threats and create additional burdens for National HIV and AIDS Programmes and Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) that work with PLHIV and key population groups.
Measures to combat COVID-19 such as quarantines, curfews and social distancing can reduce the number of working hours and disrupt services for programmes responding to HIV and AIDS. National programmes and CSOs are urged to adopt measures to ensure the continuity of care and treatment and support for viral suppression among PLHIV and to help those who are at risk of HIV acquisition to remain HIV negative.
The PANCAP Director noted that appropriate precautions and mitigation strategies must be developed and implemented across all public health sectors to prevent potentially devastating outcomes. He recommended that the following measures should be explored and adopted where possible:
· Promote the use of social media channels or boost existing platforms to disseminate HIV programme messages, including those related to COVID-19
· Ensure uninterrupted supply of commodities such as condoms and lubricants at community distribution points, including the provision of multimonth dispensing to allow for less frequent pickups where stock allows and,
· Rapidly scale up multimonth dispensing (MMD) of Antiretrovirals (ART) and other medications for clients for 3-6 months if stocks allow.
In addition, Dr Adams noted that we must keep a close watch on Gender-Based Violence and violence against vulnerable populations as the pandemic can lead to increases in violence within relationships; this situation is likely to be exacerbated by forced physical distancing, shelter-in-place measures and by economic distress caused by job losses that will harm the most vulnerable first.
Dr Adams also noted that we must ensure that CSOs are involved in providing the support required by PLHIV in accessing health services during the Pandemic. He commended the CSOs working in HIV and AIDS that have also joined the COVID-19 response and are working alongside National Authorities to scale up the quick and targeted response.
PANCAP also welcomes the assertion by the President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief ( PEPFAR) that “there is currently no direct evidence that people with HIV are at higher risk of COVID-19” and urges that all information shared about and with PLHIV should be based on empirical data.
PANCAP has commenced a multi-layered approach to the COVID-19 response. This approach consists of a series of webinars aimed at building the capacity of National AIDS Programme Managers, CSOs, clinicians, doctors, youth leaders and other stakeholders in responding to the COVID-19 Pandemic. PANCAP also initiated a public education programme to provide critical information to partners and stakeholders on COVID-19 guidance. It includes an interactive dashboard with data on the Caribbean and COVID-19 available on the PANCAP website, animated videos on COVID-19 prevention, digital posters on handwashing, advice on wearing masks and other essential information on combating COVID-19. Materials can be accessed via the PANCAP website and social media platforms.
“PANCAP will continue to provide the support to National Programmes, CSOs and all stakeholders in the HIV response with initiatives that are community-led and based on human rights,” underscored Dr Adams. “It is critical that as we respond to COVID-19, we never lose sight of PANCAP’s vision of an AIDS-free Caribean”.