Coronavirus paralyzes fight against tuberculosis and HIV in India

By David Asta Alares.

New Delhi, Apr 23 (efe-epa).- The emergence of the novel coronavirus in India followed by the largest lockdown on the planet has set back the fight against HIV and tuberculosis (TB), the most deadly infectious disease in the world, with the South Asian country leading with 480,000 deaths annually, about 1,400 per day.

Those afflicted with these diseases, which have been stigmatized due to their associations with poverty and drug addiction, have found themselves in the difficult situation of limited access to the essential medicines they need to survive.

Health workers and volunteers who, until a month ago, had been tirelessly traversing parts of rural India, often on foot or bicycle, in search of new tuberculosis cases, have been forced to suspend their activities.

“All of the TB people in the states, even in my own organization, many of our people who are working at the state levels, are helping with the COVID-19 response,” the director of the International Union against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease for South Asia, Jamhoih Tonsing, told EFE.

The effort to go house-to-house, taking saliva samples and recording data, has not been in vain: India recorded a quarter of the world’s 10 million TB cases in 2017.

India’s health ministry data reveals that 480,000 people in the Asian country die from the infectious disease each year, about 1,400 a day.

In terms of COVID-19, India has around 20,000 confirmed cases and more than 600 deaths due to the virus so far.

Experts warn that critical services such as drug distribution chains have been impacted by the focus of the Indian authorities on COVID-19, and the strict and sudden lockdown imposed on account of it has particularly impacted the poorest.

“I think in terms of TB, what we see is that the basic services are kind of happening. But the additional services have been badly impacted,” Tonsing said.

Laboratories that test saliva samples remain open but people cannot access them, which has caused the detection of new cases to plummet.

According to official data, India detected 161,746 cases of tuberculosis in the month before the lockdown was imposed on Mar. 25. From that day until Apr. 21, the number fell to 41,119.

Tonsing said that the authorities ordered the distribution of a month’s supply of medicines to the patients.

“Initially people have to come three times a week or once a week to get medicine depending on what stage of treatment they are in. But now, as a policy, everybody’s getting one month supply of drugs,” she explained.

In the popular Kotla area in south Delhi, the lockdown is relative. While closed shops and masked passersby indicate that restrictions in the fight against coronavirus remain in place, in the local market, social distancing norms are barely respected by the hundreds of people who throng vegetable stalls.

It is in one of the streets adjacent to the bustling market that inmates in a facility for drug addicts and people with HIV – two conditions that in many cases go hand-in-hand in India – are victims of a double lockdown.

Not only are they prohibited from leaving the center until they complete their rehabilitation, they are also subject to the mandatory confinement imposed by the government, which forbids medical visits or those who have completed their treatment from returning home.

“Doctor visits have become very rare, so we are taking advice on the phone. Doctors cannot come because of the lockdown and because hospitals are crowded due to coronavirus,” Jaydeep, an inmate with HIV, told EFE.

There are currently 10 patients in the center and there have been no new arrivals since the beginning of the lockdown.

However, dozens of other people sleep in bunk beds on several floors of the building, for the most part, migrant laborers who have lost their jobs because of the halt in economic activity and cannot return to their places of origin.

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