40 years of HIV/AIDS: How the virus has impacted Africa

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Since the first reported case 40 years ago, HIV/AIDS continues to be a global health crisis, particularly in Africa. The continent is home to about 15.2% of the world’s population, but home to more than two-thirds of total HIV infections in the world — roughly 35 million people. Additionally, 91% of HIV-positive children are in Africa. This high number of infections on the continent is largely attributed to poor access to healthcare, unsafe sexual practices, and high mother-to-child transmission

Unfortunately, over 20% of people living with AIDS in Africa are unaware that they are infected. With an impact this great, this is a stark indication of the need for access and affordability of HIV testing and treatments on the continent.

Here’s a closer look at the history and impact of the HIV/AIDS crisis in Africa.  

HIV/AIDS’ impact the continent 

Nearly half of all adults living with HIV around the world are women, and women between the ages of 10 and 24 years old are more likely to be infected than males in the same age group. The effects of HIV on women, especially in Africa, are highly underestimated. Additionally, 1.7 million children between the ages of 0-14 years are currently living with the virus.

AIDS continues to affect the education sector as well, with children dropping out of school to take care of an ailing family member or to work. Additionally, educating children about HIV/AIDS and teaching them how to protect themselves remains a challenge. This is because teenage children are especially vulnerable to HIV infection.

Economically, the virus has already reduced national economic growth rates by 2-4% per year across Africa, with knock-on effects for labor supply, productivity rates, and reliance on imports. 

COVID-19’s impact on HIV/AIDS

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought a new challenge for those living with HIV/AIDS, and these two viruses must be jointly addressed. A joint report by UNICEF and UNAIDS showed accelerated adolescent HIV rates during the pandemic, due to reduced access to prevention services as a result of COVID-19 containment measures. Those living with HIV are also more prone to contracting a severe case COVID-19.

Challenges remaining

Beyond the immediate testing, treatment, and preventative measures, a number of additional challenges remain, including: 

  • Stigma against HIV/AIDS increases secrecy and denial, which can also lead to increased HIV transmission and prevent the delivery of effective medical care. Due to this, there are still a low number of people who actually seek testing voluntarily. 
  • Governments aren’t doing enough to make antiretroviral (ARV) drugs available to their citizens. In Kenya, for instance, the government recently tried to introduce a tax on ARVs that were coming into the country as donations. This resulted in the drugs getting held up at ports and denying many HIV-positive Kenyans access to the drugs unnecessarily.
  • Over 40% of people living with the virus in Africa still do not know they are infected, indicating the need for accessible and affordable testing services. 
  • The cost of medicines and other commodities is still high. Prices must be reduced so that services can be affordable to all, and HIV services should be more closely integrated with the wider health system.

Africa has a long way to go in winning the fight against HIV/AIDS, but it is possible with proper coordination.

What can be done now?

African governments should commit to strengthening initiatives that increase the capacities of individuals, especially women and children, to protect themselves. Ending the stigma surrounding the virus is also important. To achieve this, African governments have embarked on increased mass education, including urging people to speak out against stigma. The continent has also strived to involve HIV-positive people in service delivery, responding to the needs of the stigmatized population.

In order to retool the AIDS fight for the next decade, African governments must invest fully in addressing the dual epidemics of HIV/AIDS and COVID-19, focus on helping the most vulnerable and hardest-to-reach people, and unlock more sustainable funding for HIV/AIDS and resilient health systems.

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