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Is it safe for HIV-positive people to get the Covid-19 vaccine?

It’s more important than ever to know your HIV status during the pandemic, says Discovery Health. Here’s why

Global health authorities encourage HIV-infected people to get the Covid-19 vaccine.

Global health authorities encourage HIV-infected people to get the Covid-19 vaccine.
Image: 123RF/strebkov

The double jeopardy of HIV/Aids and Covid-19 is putting many lives at risk in SA and across the globe.

Globally, World Aids Days is marked every year on December 1. This year, the Joint UN Programme on HIV and Aids, UNAids, used the event to draw attention to the inequalities behind HIV/Aids and other pandemics about the world.

The body warns that if “bold action” isn’t taken against these inequalities, the world risks missing the target to end the Aids epidemic by 2030 — and faces a lengthy Covid-19 pandemic.

WHY IT’S VITAL TO KNOW YOUR HIV STATUS

In SA, there are estimated to be 8.2-million people living with HIV.

The risk of them dying from Covid-19 should they become infected is double that of the general population, according to a UNAids report called Confronting inequalities: lessons for pandemic responses from 40 years of Aids

Without antiretroviral drugs (ARVs), HIV-positive people are more likely to have compromised immune systems. And, if an HIV-positive person is elderly or suffers from underlying medical conditions, they become even more vulnerable to becoming severely ill if they get Covid-19.

The risk of HIV-infected people dying from Covid-19 should they become infected is double that of the general population
UNAids report

“To get treatment for HIV, patients first need to know that they have the virus. [That’s why screening checks are so vital],” says Dr Noluthando Nematswerani, head of the Discovery Health Centre for Clinical Excellence.

“Unfortunately, various reports show that, across the world, HIV screening rates decreased greatly since the pandemic started. Discovery Health Medical Scheme data show a 39.2% drop in HIV screenings from 2019 to 2021.”

In KwaZulu-Natal, there was a 48% drop in HIV testing after the first national lockdown started in March 2020, according to the UNAids report. It also notes there was “a marked drop in treatment initiation. This occurred as 28,000 HIV community healthcare workers were shifted from HIV testing to Covid-19 symptom screening”.

ARE COVID-19 VACCINES SAFE FOR PEOPLE WITH HIV?

“Global health authorities encourage HIV-infected people to get the Covid-19 vaccine, no matter what their CD4 count or viral load is. This is because the potential benefits of vaccination are greater than the potential risks,” says Nematswerani.

“Covid-19 vaccines have undergone rigorous clinical trials to ensure they are safe and effective. Each country’s health authority also conducts further investigations to ensure the vaccines are safe before they are approved to be used in that country.

There is no evidence to suggest potential negative interactions with [the Covid-19 vaccine] and ARVs or pre-exposure prophylaxis
Dr Noluthando Nematswerani, head of the Discovery Health Centre for Clinical Excellence

“While many of the first Covid-19 vaccine clinical trials did not involve people living with HIV, later clinical trials did. And, based on what we know from these trials, there is no evidence to suggest potential negative interactions with ARVs or pre-exposure prophylaxis.”

Nematswerani says the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warns that people with a weakened immune system might not be fully protected against Covid-19, even if they are fully vaccinated, because their immune response might be lower than people who have a stronger immune system.

“Discovery Health encourages everyone who can be vaccinated to do so, to protect themselves against serious Covid-19 illness, which could lead to going to hospital and even death,” she advises.

HOW ELSE CAN YOU PROTECT YOURSELF?

Beyond getting the Covid-19 vaccine as soon as possible, people who live with HIV can protect themselves against the coronavirus by taking these steps, recommended by the CDC and UNAids:

WHAT SUPPORT CAN YOU GET THROUGH DISCOVERY HEALTH?

“Discovery Health’s HIV Care Programme helps HIV-positive people get access to clinically sound HIV treatment and monitoring. Cases are dealt with individually and with complete confidentiality,” says Nematswerani. “The programme gives our medical scheme members and their Premier Plus GP access to various tools to monitor and manage the member’s condition.”

When a member registers for the HIV Care Programme, they are covered for:

Find out more about the Discovery Health Medical Scheme HIV Care Programme here. Discovery’s Covid-19 vaccine hub has important information on vaccines and vaccination sites. It also has a vaccination navigator to guide Discovery members on their vaccination journey.

This article was paid for by Discovery Health.

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