African youth living with HIV to bear the brunt of new attack

Saturday March 21 2020

Activists demonstrate in Nairobi to push for access to HIV/Aids drugs. Young women (aged 15–24 years) account for 26 per cent of new HIV infections. FILE PHOTO | NMG

By Elizabeth Merab

Young HIV-positive Africans are more vulnerable to contracting the new Covid-19 disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, experts have warned.

As more cases of the Covid-19 disease continue to be reported in a number of African countries, a team of experts led by the World Health Organisation (WHO) regional director has expressed worry that the virus is likely to take a toll on the continent because in Africa many young people, the largest population shown to survive in Europe, Asia and the United States, tend to also be the group with the highest cases of HIV infection rate.

“Young people are dealing with a number of communicable diseases. There is also a lack of access to care for many compared with Asia,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO-Afro regional director.

According to the latest data on HIV estimates, there were 20.6 million people living with HIV in East and Southern Africa in 2018, with the UNAIDS saying East and Southern Africa regions are home to the largest number of people living with HIV.

Young women (aged 15–24 years) account for 26 per cent of new HIV infections. Every week the UNAIDS estimates that four in five new infections among adolescents aged between 15 and 19 are in girls in sub-Saharan Africa. Further, young women aged between 15 and 24 are twice more likely to be living with HIV than men.

In addition, about 58.8 million are malnourished, something that makes their immune systems weak to fight off diseases.


These dynamics, Dr Moeti said, makes Africa’s ability to fight the new coronavirus difficult compared with other continents where the rapidly evolving disease had struck.

“About 10 days ago we had about five countries” with the virus, WHO’s Africa chief Dr Matshidiso Moeti told journalists. Now 34 of Africa’s 54 countries have confirmed cases, with the total close to 650. It’s an “extremely rapid evolution,” she said.

On Thursday, more African countries closed their borders as the coronavirus’ spread threat to the continent became more imminent. Senegal closed its airspace.

Angola and Cameroon shut air, land and sea borders. In East Africa, Rwanda blocked all commercial flights for a month as Kenya embarked on random screening in targeted parts of capital Nairobi to determine whether there was any local transmission.

“This situation is real. It cannot be unreal in Kenya when it is real everywhere else in the world,” Kenya’s Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe said.

Almost all East African countries with the exception of Uganda, Burundi, and South Sudan have reported cases in their territories.

Explaining the phenomenon, Dr Michel Yao, emergency operations programme manager, at WHO's regional office for Africa said: “These countries are following the laid out procedures to track any suspected cases. If there were cases, they would have already been picked through the testing of suspected cases.”


On Wednesday, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus expressed concern that the number of cases of the new coronavirus infections being reported in Africa may not be true representation because testing is not robust. As a result, he said, many cases could be slipping through the cracks.

However, Dr Moeti said she did not believe that large numbers of infected people are going undetected in Africa, despite acknowledging that there was a shortage of testing kits. As it is, 43 countries have the testing capability, up from two when the outbreak began.

Dr Tedros’ statement could be supported by a new study which has found that in China Covid-19 was spread mostly by people who did not get sick enough to seek medical care.

A new study shows that simply avoiding symptomatic people will not go far enough to curb the COVID-19 pandemic. This is because researchers have discovered that many individuals can carry the novel coronavirus without showing any of the typical symptoms of COVID-19: fever, dry cough, and shortness of breath.

But these asymptomatic or only mildly ill individuals can still shed virus and infect others. There are 645 million people living in rural areas in sub-Saharan Africa, according to World Bank data—and three-quarters of them do not have the facilities at home to wash their hands with soap and water.

Dr Moeti expressed concern about travel restrictions and their impact on the ability to deliver needed resources, saying it was a necessary evil as reduced movement was a measure which had been seen to work to stop the SAR-CoV-2 virus from spreading.