Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, the screening for human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) has taken a back seat. On the eve of the World Aids Day, observed on December 1, data shared by the Mumbai District AIDS Control Society (MDACS) has revealed that between April and October, there has been a decline of around 65% in the tests conducted for HIV infection in the city as compared to the pre-pandemic period.

Before the Covid-19 outbreak, MDACS used to screen more than 32,000 people, including suspected patients and individuals from groups vulnerable to infection such as truck drivers, sex workers, prisoners, members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community, for HIV infections every month. However, in the past seven months, MDACS has tested only around 11,000 people each month for the virus.

Between April and October, a total of 83,190 people have been tested for HIV, of whom, 803 have been found infected with the virus. “The outpatient departments (OPDs) in hospitals were closed in the first three months of the lockdown. Only the anti-retroviral therapy (ART) centres and fever clinics were open. Due to the lockdown, people couldn’t visit hospitals, which led to delay in screening,” said Dr Srikala Acharya, additional project director, MDACS, adding that after the relaxation of the lockdown norms, the situation has gotten better.

Raising concerns over the issue, health activists have said that a delay in diagnosis can be life threatening for people living with HIV. “Due to the pandemic, the screening of suspected patients has largely been affected. But the civic-body can’t be held responsible for it. Generally, when a person develops symptoms, they go to a hospital. After preliminary examination, doctors prescribe them for the test. During the lockdown, patients couldn’t go to hospitals. Also, many avoided going to hospitals due to the fear of contracting Covid-19 infection too,” said Ganesh Acharya, who is an HIV activist.

Decline in new HIV infections in 5 years

The city’s fight against HIV is showing results as the number of patients diagnosed with the virus has decreased drastically in the past five years.

In 2015-16, as many as 7,592 new patients with HIV infection were diagnosed. However, despite increasing the annual testing from 2.8 lakh in 2015-16 to 4.8 lakh in 2019-20, the number of newly infected patients fell to 4,473.

HIV causes acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), a condition that weakens the body’s ability to fight infections. The virus can be transmitted through contact with infected blood, semen or vaginal fluids.

So far, there is no cure for the disease. But if patients follow the antiretroviral regimens (ARVs), it can drastically lead to slowing of the progress of the illness by repairing the body’s immunity system.

As per MDACS, unprotected sex is the main reason for the transmission of the virus among people.

The society has started a new campaign named ‘Mitawaa’ for adolescents living with HIV.

“Often children of HIV-infected parents are born with the infection. Even though we start their medicines from the first day of their birth, they begin refusing it once they start growing up. Also, they slip into depression. So we have decided to counsel the infected children regularly at ART centres,” said Dr Acharya.

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