Tag Archives: HIV and AIDS

What if the HIV epidemic first manifested in poor countries?

By Japheth Mati

The first WHO report on neglected tropical diseases[i] highlights the importance of a class of diseases which though medically diverse, are grouped together because all are strongly associated with poverty, all flourish in impoverished environments and all thrive best in tropical areas, where they tend to coexist. Most are ancient diseases that have plagued humanity for centuries. These diseases remain largely silent, as the people affected or at risk have little political voice. As a result, they have traditionally ranked low on national and international health agendas, allowing them to continue causing massive but hidden and silent suffering, and frequently kill, though not to the same extent as in the case of HIV and AIDS, tuberculosis or malaria.

The response to the continuing presence of the neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) in most countries in the Tropics stands in sharp contrast to the unparalleled achievement in addressing the HIV epidemic. The first case of AIDS was diagnosed in 1981. Two years later, in 1983 the HIV virus was identified, and in 1985 the FDA approved the first HIV antibody test, making it possible to diagnose the disease more precisely and to screen individuals (and blood) for the infection. In 1987 the FDA approved the first antiretroviral drug AZT (ziduvidine). Thus, despite remaining a serious global challenge, HIV had changed within a period of less than a decade from being essentially a fatal condition to become a chronic illness, thanks to the unprecedented global cooperation and commitment of massive resources for HIV research and development (R&D) activities.

Source:Working to overcome the global impact of neglected tropical diseases, First WHO report on neglected tropical diseases, 2010

Funding for Research & Development (R&D): HIV and AIDS versus NTDs

From the 1990s until 2009, funding for the HIV epidemic increased substantially[ii]. In 2008, an estimated $15.6 billion was spent on HIV and AIDS compared to $300 million in 1996. These funds mainly derived from donations from national governments, multilateral funding organisations, and private funding. In 2009 the United States of America was the largest donor in the world, accounting for more than half of disbursements to HIV R&D by governments. DFID is the world’s second biggest bilateral donor for HIV/AIDS.

On the other hand, R&D of drugs for NTDs has been very significantly under-funded. The first comprehensive survey of global spending on R&D for neglected diseases[iii], showed that in 2007, nearly 80% of the global investment into R&D of new medical products[iv] was consumed by three diseases- HIV/AIDS, TB, and malaria. Many NTDs, responsible for killing millions of people in developing countries, shared the remaining 20%; each received less than 5% of global funding. These diseases include Filariasis, Schistosomiasis, Onchocerciasis, Sleeping sickness, Leishmaniasis (kalar-azar), Chagas disease, Guinea-worm, Dengue, diarrhoeal illnesses, worm infestations, Pneumonia, Meningitis, Leprosy, Buruli ulcer, Trachoma, Rheumatic fever, Typhoid and Paratyphoid fever, and Rabies.

What is peculiar about the HIV epidemic?

AIDS as a disease entity was first reported in 1981 among homosexual men in the United States, and for some time the disease was considered peculiar to homosexuals, being variously labeled “the gay cancer”, “the gay plague” and “the gay-related immunodeficiency disease [GRID]”). These first cases involved highly educated men, many from the upper echelons of the American society. They soon realized their plight and, through a strong well organized lobby movement, fought hard for public attention and support of the search for ‘cure’. No wonder, within less than a decade, several drugs had already received FDA approval. Since then, HIV disease has engulfed the world, and the majority of the cases now live in developing countries. Nevertheless, it is possible that the conscience and momentum built up in those early years continue to play a significant role in sustaining international support for HIV activities.

What is peculiar about the neglected tropical diseases?

The nature of NTDs differs in several respects from HIV[v]. Generally, although these diseases affect the poor and marginalized populations living in rural and urban areas, they are almost exclusively limited to the tropics. These are people that cannot readily influence government decisions that affect their health, and often seem to have no constituency that speaks on their behalf. Also, unlike HIV, most NTDs generally do not spread widely, since their distribution is restricted by climate and its effect on the distribution of vectors and reservoir hosts; in most cases, there appears to be a low risk of transmission beyond the tropics. Consequently, not much is spoken about the impacts of the NTDs, nationally or internationally.

The neglected tropical diseases, also dubbed the ‘ancient companions of poverty’, have an enormous impact on individuals, families and communities in developing countries in terms of disease burden, quality of life, and loss of productivity aggravating poverty, as well as the high cost of long-term care. They constitute a serious obstacle to socioeconomic development and quality of life at all levels. WHO estimates that these diseases blight the lives of 1 billion people worldwide and threaten the health of millions more[vi]; they are a serious obstacle to the achievement of health-related Millennium Development Goals.

These diseases can, at relatively low cost, be controlled, prevented and possibly eliminated using effective and feasible solutions, such as the five strategic interventions recommended by WHO[vii].

What if the HIV epidemic first manifested in poor countries?

The answer to this philosophical question may never be known. However, going by the example of the dilatory international response to NTDs to date, it is worrying to imagine what the status of the HIV epidemic would be if it first manifested in poor countries.

[i] World Health Organization (2010) First WHO report on neglected tropical diseases 2010: working to overcome the global impact of neglected tropical diseases WHO, Geneva 

[iv] Total investment was about $US 2.5 billion.

[v] World Health Organization (2010) First WHO report on neglected tropical diseases 2010: working to overcome the global impact of neglected tropical diseases WHO, Geneva

[vi] World Health Organization (2010) First WHO report on neglected tropical diseases 2010: working to overcome the global impact of neglected tropical diseases WHO, Geneva

[vii] These are: preventive chemotherapy; intensified case management; vector control; the provision of safe water, sanitation and hygiene; and veterinary public health.

What are the prospects of Africa achieving universal access to HIV treatment?

Universal access to HIV treatment is one of the targets of Millennium Development Goal 6 (MDG6), the indicator for which is the proportion of the population with advanced HIV infection with access to antiretroviral drugs (ARVs). For Africa, achievement of this goal is a monumental task considering the sheer magnitude of the problem. In 2008 sub-Saharan Africa was home to just over 22 million of the world’s estimated 33.4 million people infected with HIV[i]. Almost every country in the region has suffered a generalized HIV epidemic, with the highest HIV prevalence rates existing in southern and eastern Africa. South Africa is reputed to harbour the greatest number of people living with HIV in the world (about 5.7 million).

In the past decade there has been a considerable increase in access to HIV treatment in resource-limited settings where antiretroviral medications were previously unavailable, rising 10-fold between 2003 and 2008[ii], thanks to global funding sources, especially the US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and the Global Fund for AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria (GFATM). According to WHO and UNAIDS[iii], the coverage of ARV therapy in the sub-Saharan Africa, rose from 2% in 2003 to an estimated 44% of adults and children by December 2008. However, important access gaps still remain. In Kenya, for example, by 2009 only 290,000 persons that required ARV treatment were receiving it[iv], at a time when more than 1.4 million Kenyans were living with HIV[v]. In the sub-Saharan Africa, by end of 2008 only four countries (Botswana, Namibia, Rwanda and Senegal) had ARV coverage of 50% or more among adults and children who were eligible for the treatment and only six countries had achieved coverage of 50% or more of pregnant women for the prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV[vi].

The rapid expansion of treatment access is saving lives, improving quality of life, and contributing to the rejuvenation of households, communities and entire societies. As the number of people receiving ARVs increases, so does improvement in survival among people living with HIV. Evidence suggests that improved access to ARV therapy is helping to drive a decline in HIV related mortality[vii]. In Kenya, AIDS-related deaths have fallen by 29% since 2002[viii]. Paradoxically, this reduction in AIDS-related deaths translates into an increasing population of HIV infected persons at any given time. This implies there is a continuous increase in demand for HIV treatment. However, some data has suggested that ARV therapy may lower HIV transmission rate by as much as 90 percent[ix]. It is believed that improved access to ARVs may help to lower viral load both at the individual and community levels, this resulting in reduced incidence of new infections. Treatment coverage for children have remained lower than for adults[x] due to a number of reasons, among them: diagnosis of HIV in children is more difficult; HIV infection tends to progress faster to AIDS and death in children; and appropriate ARV treatment regimens for children are less accessible.

Challenges for scaling up of ARV treatment

Achievement of the goal of universal access to HIV treatment requires that the scope of coverage of HIV services is rapidly expanded. This in turn demands sustainable financing mechanisms, human resources, quality in service provision and use of services. It will be important to understand and address the key factors that limit the scope of coverage, and impede the demand for and utilization of HIV services, which include a weak, usually under-funded, health system, weak management and governance systems, especially with regard to procurement and distribution of needed resources- for counseling, testing, diagnosis and clinical management and monitoring of treatment, and referral systems. There is need for strengthened logistics systems, including capacity building, in order to enable adequate supply of HIV test kits and drugs at all levels as appropriate.

Acceptability of voluntary HIV testing is another challenge to the scale-up and effectiveness of HIV treatment. It is also a factor in late diagnosis and entry into ARV treatment programmes. In Kenya, as many as 4 out of 5 HIV-infected persons do not know their HIV status, while 63% that should be on treatment, do not know their status, and are therefore not on ARV therapy[xi]. Stigma and discrimination of HIV infected persons in most African countries remain important reasons for fear to come out for testing and declaring status.

A serious challenge is the sustainability of access to affordable drugs. Scaling up of HIV treatment faces the barriers to be created by the adoption of anti-counterfeits policies and laws[xii] that would block the production and importation of life-saving generic medicines, particularly ARVs.

Sustainability of funding of treatment programmes is a formidable challenge. As mentioned above the rapid increase in access to ARVs has largely been driven by PEPFER and Global Fund funding. However, since the Obama administration, there has been a stagnation of PEPFAR funding which, among other things, has discouraged enrolment of new patients into treatment programmes unless they are replacing others who have left or died. This, in turn, would allow PEPFAR funds to support treatment of an array of health issues, including those not directly related to HIV, and stabilize funding for a variety of health concerns[xiii]. This implies many countries will be forced to treat the very sick patients first, and will be hard put to implement the updated WHO standard which raises the cut-off point for commencing ARV treatment from a CD4 count of 200 to 350.

The lesson is clear: whilst advocacy for enhanced international assistance must continue, at the same time African governments must increase national contribution to the cost of health care including HIV treatment, and increasingly reduce over-reliance on foreign support for critical sectors such as health care. For example, it has been reported that foreign agencies pay for more than 90 percent of Uganda’s AIDS-treatment regimens (Uganda is certainly not alone in this category). As the East African[xiv] has put it “donors hold the power of life and death over people living with HIV in Uganda”. Funding from the Global Fund has also been unpredictable. In the wake of repeated corruption allegations, in 2009 the Fund approved just under 6 percent of Uganda’s request. Kenya also has frequently run into a collision with the Global Fund over accounting issues, which has resulted in delayed release of subsequent allocations[xv]. Only Malawi, dubbed the model of success in the sub-Saharan African fight against AIDS, stands alone in this respect- the country is said to have actually doubled its own health spending. African governments can learn a lesson from the trend in Latin America, Asia, and the Middle East, where most governments double their health budgets while receiving aid[xvi].

Without enhanced international assistance and strong commitment by African governments to immediately increase budgetary allocations to the health sector, including for the purchase of ARVs, achievement of universal access to HIV treatment will remain an illusion. It is the hope that the resolution at the recent African Union Summit in Kampala, 19 to 27 July 2010, committing African leaders to invest more in ‘community health workers’ and to meet the Abuja target of investing up to 15% of government expenditure to health, will not simply gather dust like others in the past decade.

Another challenge, not frequently verbalized in medical circles, is ensuring access to appropriate diets for people entering HIV treatment programmes. Addressing the nutritional needs of such people has not been adequately prioritized within HIV and AIDS prevention, care and mitigation programmes that are currently underway in many sub-Saharan African countries. This is despite the knowledge that HIV infection, food and nutrition are closely linked, and cumulative evidence suggests that bolstering the nutrition of HIV infected persons can sustain them in active productive life, delay the onset of AIDS and permit longer survival. Malnutrition, an endemic problem in many parts of the region, is known to exacerbate the effects of HIV by further weakening the immune system, and contributing to poor tolerance to, as well as effectiveness of ARVs[xvii].

Among the major concerns voiced by groups of people living with HIV in five African countries visited by the writer[xviii], was food shortage, especially balanced diet that they are regularly advised to take while on treatment with ARVs[xix]. For example, one person in Zambia complained that he had been instructed to eat five meals a day while on treatment; this at a time when he could barely get one meal per day! The result is that many simply did not take their drugs.

Adequate nutrition improves the effectiveness of HIV treatment and sustains quality of life. In view of this, nutritional assistance should be an important component of HIV treatment programmes. This may be in the form of nutritional assessment, counseling, and increasing access to food, either provided directly, or through social protection programmes such as cash transfers, or facilitated income generation activities. In the long run, mitigation of the impacts of HIV and AIDS should include interventions that focus on increasing access to food and improved diets for HIV infected persons, for example, through measures that enhance household incomes, and improved agricultural productivity.

Related link

Food insecurity a serious threat to achieving universal access to HIV treatment in Kenya-millennium development goal Target 6B


[i] Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) and World Health Organization (WHO) AIDS epidemic update: November 2009.

[ii] World Health Organization, United Nations Children’s Fund, UNAIDS (2009). Towards universal access: scaling up priority HIV/AIDS interventions in the health sector. Geneva, World Health Organization.

[iii] Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) and World Health Organization (WHO) AIDS epidemic update: November 2009.

[iv] Dr Ibrahim Mohamed Scale up of access to ART in Kenya National Aids Control Program; Ministry of Medical Services Kenya, November, 2009

[v] National AIDS and STI Control Programme, Ministry of Health, Kenya. July 2008. Kenya AIDS Indicator Survey 2007: Preliminary Report. Nairobi, Kenya.)

[vi] Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) and World Health Organization (WHO) AIDS epidemic update: November 2009.

[vii] Jahn A et al. (2008). Population-level effect of HIV on adult mortality and early evidence of reversal after introduction of antiretroviral therapy in Malawi. Lancet, 371:1603–1611; Mermin J et al. (2008). Mortality in HIV-infected Ugandan adults receiving antiretroviral treatment and survival of their HIV-uninfected children: a prospective cohort study. Lancet, 371:752–759.

[viii] National AIDS Control Council, National AIDS/STI Control Programme. Sentinel surveillance of HIV and AIDS in Kenya 2006. Nairobi, National AIDS Control Council, National AIDS/STI Control Programme, 2007.

[ix] Attia S et al. (2009). Sexual transmission of HIV according to viral load and antiretroviral therapy: systematic review and meta-analysis. AIDS, 23:1397–1404.

[x] UNAIDS (2008). Report on the global AIDS epidemic. Geneva, UNAIDS.

[xi] National AIDS and STI Control Programme, Ministry of Health, Kenya. July 2008. Kenya AIDS Indicator Survey 2007: Preliminary Report. Nairobi, Kenya.)

[xii] These include the Anti-Counterfeit Act of 2008 in Kenya, the Counterfeit Goods Bill in Uganda and the EAC Anti-Counterfeits Bill

[xiv] Esther Nakkazi Uganda: ARV Shortage Sets in As Aids Funding Falls East African 3 August 2009: http://allafrica.com/stories/200908031372.html

[xv] Gatonye Gathura and David Njagi Kenya: Row With Global Fund on Cards Daily Nation On The Web 5 October 2009: http://allafrica.com/stories/200910051673.html

[xviii] During 2006/7 the writer had the privilege of interacting with groups of PLWHA in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe, whilst a consultant to Heifer International of Little Rock, Arkansas, USA.

[xix] Japheth Mati (2010) Food insecurity a serious threat to achieving universal access to HIV treatment in Kenya (Millennium Development Goal Target 6B) http://blog.marsgroupkenya.org/?tag=africa-health-info

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