Two years after lockdown: reviewing the effects of COVID-19 on health services and support for adolescents living with HIV in South Africa

Case Studies & Research
p. 1-6
Periodical title
Journal of the International AIDS Society, vol. 25, issue 4 (2022), e25904

South Africa's progress towards the 95-95-95 goals has been significantly slower among adolescents living with HIV (ALHIV), among whom antiretroviral therapy (ART) adherence, retention in care and viral suppression remain a concern. After 2 years of living with COVID-19, it is important to examine the direct and indirect effects of the pandemic on healthcare resources, access to HIV services and availability of support structures, to assess their impact on HIV care for ALHIV. The COVID-19 response in South Africa has shifted healthcare resources towards combatting COVID-19, affecting the quality and availability of HIV services - especially for vulnerable populations, such as ALHIV. The healthcare system's response to COVID-19 has threatened to diminish fragile gains in engaging ALHIV with HIV services, especially as this group relies on overburdened public health facilities for their HIV care. Reallocation of limited health resources utilized by ALHIV disrupted healthcare workers’ capacity to form and maintain therapeutic relationships with ALHIV and monitor ALHIV for ART-related side effects, treatment difficulties and mental health conditions, affecting their ability to retain ALHIV in HIV care. Prevailing declines in HIV surveillance meant missed opportunities to identify and manage opportunistic infections and HIV disease progression in adolescents. “Lockdown” restrictions have limited access to healthcare facilities and healthcare workers for ALHIV by reducing clinic appointments and limiting individual movement. ALHIV have had restricted access to social, psychological and educational support structures, including national feeding schemes. This limited access, coupled with reduced opportunities for routine maternal and sexual and reproductive health services, may place adolescent girls at greater risk of transactional sex, child marriages, unintended pregnancy and mother-to-child HIV transmission. Adolescent HIV care in South Africa is often overlooked; however, ART adherence among ALHIV in South Africa is particularly susceptible to the consequences of a world transformed by COVID-19. The current structures in place to support HIV testing, ART initiation and adherence have been reshaped by disruptions to health structures, new barriers to access health services and the limited available education and psychosocial support systems. Reflecting on these limitations can drive considerations for minimizing these barriers and retaining ALHIV in HIV care.

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