HIV and TB Patients Face New Barriers To Accessing Services In COVID-19 Era
A new report has found that HIV and TB patients faced significant new barriers to access care in the COVID pandemic era.

In the past year, across all non-COVID conditions, routine health care has changed. GPs feel that acute care has been compromised due to their own changed focus, and because patients consult less frequently for non-COVID conditions. 

For HIV and TB communities, both diseases exacerbated by poverty and marginalisation, these impacts are particularly acute. The World Health Organization has estimated that 1.4 million fewer people received care for TB in 2020 than in 2019, and a recent Lancet study found that 11 out of 19 countries in Central and Eastern Europe had physicians sharing HIV and COVID-19 care duties, impacting the quality and frequency of services to HIV key affected populations. 

A new report by the Alliance for Public Health finds that in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and the Balkans, HIV and TB patients faced significant new barriers to access care in the COVID pandemic era.  These findings are particularly significant since two of the six countries studied, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Moldova, are also among the ten top countries worldwide in terms of COVID deaths per capita. 

Findings of the study were also presented in an online discussion on 7th April 2021, on the occasion of World Health Day, attended by over 150 individuals working in the HIV and TB space across the region. The issues, likely to be seen in other high-burden HIV and TB countries as well, include:  

  • Less ability of patients to consult clinicians; 
  • Reduced access to testing and treatment, including threats of sanctions for breaches of lockdown;
  • Technological barriers to access new mobile- and e-health methods to access care. 
  • Insufficient social safety nets and direct financial support for HIV and TB communities – especially given their work in the informal economy

The study, co-authored by APH along with Matahari Global Solutions, drew upon interviews with patients, clinicians, government officials, and key informants in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, and Ukraine, and sought to provide an illustrative picture of access to care for HIV and TB communities in those countries. 

25-50% Reductions of HIV Testing & TB Detection

All countries examined found reductions of HIV testing and TB detection of at least 25-50%. 

Similarly in the case of HIV treatment, comprehensive treatment in the framework of “People Living with HIV” (PLHIV) in the Eastern Europe and Central Asia (EECA) region only stood at 44% pre-COVID pandemic. In comparison, HIV testing services were reduced by 33% in Moldova, 12% in Kyrgyzstan, and by 21% in Ukraine in 2020 as compared to 2019. Similarly, antiretroviral treatment (ART) uptake in Moldova decreased by 25% over the past year, in Kyrgyzstan by 14%, and by 11% in Ukraine. 

In Georgia, the National Centre for TB and Lung Diseases sought to tackle the 25% reduction in TB detection by increasing screening via mobile X-rays equipped with artificial intelligence technology and screening each COVID-19 patient for TB, given similar symptoms. 

In Kyrgyzstan, a country already struggling with inadequate medical infrastructure, organisations working on TB in Osh, the country’s second largest city, said that X-ray machines were of low quality, and that COVID-19 rules saw long queues for access to X-rays and other necessary services for TB screening. Patients also didn’t have the financial resources to pay out of pocket for additional diagnostics. There were additional barriers caused by security guards to health facilities, whose main duties were to ensure adherence to social distancing, and did not comprehend the necessity of patients attending in person. 

An NGO leader based in Osh told us: “Doctors sent (the patient) for a CT scan, which costs about $30, and the clients do not have the financial resources for this… The security guard at the entrance asked visitors in great detail why they came to the doctor, and it took a lot of time and effort to explain everything to these guards, who, in principle, did not understand the issues and did not care about (them).” Compounding these access issues, according to one medical specialist from Bishkek, was the use of anti-TB antibiotics to treat COVID patients at the early stage of the pandemic, and concerns about rising antimicrobial resistance (AMR) and drug-resistant forms of TB. And while there are ongoing projects to tackle serious AMR issues in Kyrgyzstan via promoting the rational use of antibiotics, COVID-19 set back progress and will need urgent scale-up of AMR stewardship activities. 

A medical professional works in the temporary Covid-19 care centre Palace of Sport in Bishkek, Kyrgyz Republic in July 2020.

All countries saw the scale-up of mobile- and e-health tools to access services during the COVID-19 pandemic. In Ukraine, people living with HIV used an app to track their recent viral load counts, HIV medicine supplies, and allowed for management for appointments with clinicians. In Kyrgyzstan, ad hoc Whatsapp groups allowed patients in remote rural areas to connect with specialists from Bishkek, an opportunity not normally afforded to them. In Moldova, Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan, the use of video support to increase adherence to TB medication regimens increased. 

Loss of Incomes During COVID-19 Exacerbate HIV & TB Outcomes

But emerging from all countries was the sense that without income support, especially for vulnerable groups that had lost their jobs during COVID-19, treatment adherence measures would all fall by the wayside. An activist from TBPeople Ukraine told us: “We have not once spoken of the fact that people were left without support. What happened to tuberculosis? People who were on treatment for a long time but were unable to find jobs – they felt like burdens on their families. Most were just left to go home without any material or social assistance. What DOT and treatment adherence can we talk about if the person had nothing to eat?” In Moldova, ex-prisoners predominantly work as construction workers and had lost all income during the COVID-19 pandemic, and was cited as a factor for TB treatment dropout. All countries examined lacked sufficiently broad social safety nets to support individuals and families through COVID-19 income losses. 

And in Bosnia and Herzegovina, a poor transition out of Global Fund funding meant that services for key HIV populations, including men who have sex with men and people who use drugs, had serious sustainability issues, and these were amplified during COVID. In a country where stigma tow-ards gay men is high, and where clinical care for gay men is outdated, drop-in centres proved to be an important safe space where gay men could get services. After the Global Fund transition, these drop-in centres were de-funded, and COVID-19 saw a massive reduction in access to HIV and other sexual health services for this group. 

The region will need comprehensive COVID-19/HIV/TB recovery strategies, including widening of mobile HIV and TB screening services, a scale-up in HIV self-testing, scale-up of funding of programs to serve HIV and TB communities (including safe spaces for gay men in Bosnia and Herzegovina), broader social safety programmes, integration of TB and COVID-19 testing, and digital support initiatives to help bridge e-health gaps. 

Insights from the Panel Discussions 

Dr Nino Lomtadze, Head of Surveillance from the Georgian National Centre for TB and Lung Diseases.

Additionally, a number of important insights emerged from Wednesday’s discussion:  

  • Dr Andrei Dadu of the WHO European Regional Office, emphasised that people living with HIV and TB communities should be prioritised to receive COVID-19 vaccinations under second phases of vaccination programmes. 
  • Anton Basenko, of the Alliance for Public Health in Ukraine, said that the financial support for HIV and TB communities shouldn’t solely be focused on masks and sanitisers, but also on direct financial support and provision of psychosocial support. 
  • Maka Gogia, of the Georgian Harm Reduction Network, described how the pandemic-era  scale-up of sterile needle-and-syringe vending machines in Tbilisi, five-day take home doses for opioid substitution therapies, and online medical consultations with people who use drugs, had all become important adaptations to the pandemic. But there is a need for increased financial support to deliver services to remote regions of the country. 

Pavel Aksenov, summarising findings for Russia, and said that there is a need for the better  integration of community-based TB programmes and facilities with psychosocial support for patients. 

In addition, he called for a revival of high profile HIV and TB testing campaigns to recover declines in testing seen during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Finally, there is a need to develop and integrate new remote and contactless ways for key affected populations to access necessary services, including the optimisation of online counselling. Aksenov also noted that NGOs receiving external funding may be categorised as ‘foreign agents’, so need flexibility from donors in COVID-19/HIV/TB fund reprogramming, to ensure that NGOs can cope with additional administrative and financial burdens of reporting on donor funding. 

All in all, COVID-19/HIV/TB recovery plans need to take into account best practices and findings from this report, including the urgent need to broaden social safety nets to HIV and TB communities, including direct financial support, and to facilitate access to online and mobile access to HIV and TB services. 

In the words of Dr Stela Bivol from PAS Center in Moldova, quoted in the report, “What’s not covered now is that all these vulnerable populations need more material support. They need more welfare support that is beyond the financial incentives to be on TB treatment, they need livelihood support.”

Dr Fifa Rahman

* Dr Fifa Rahman is Principal Consultant for Matahari Global Solutions, and Permanent NGO Representative on the Facilitation Council of the WHO Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator; Pavel Aksenov is Associate Consultant for Matahari Global Solutions; Tetiana Deshko is Director of the International Programs for the Alliance for Public Health, and Oleksandr Zeziulin is MD, MPH, Senior Researcher, Ukraine Institute on Public Health Policy

Image Credits: World Health Organization, Shutterstock.

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