NAIROBI / MEXICO CITY (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Starting with a headache, then nausea and diarrhea appear. Within two weeks, Ugandan gay barber Eric became so weak without his HIV medication that he could not walk and had to be hospitalized.
“I was in the hospital for a week and four days. I almost lost my life, “Eric, 26, said by telephone from his village in Ntungamo district in western Uganda.
“The doctor told me that I should not stop taking my HIV medication, but that was not my choice. There is no transportation available due to locking up and I cannot walk 20 km (12 miles) to the clinic to get my refill ”.
Global lockdown prevents some LGBT + people from HIV from getting the life-saving treatment they need – and potentially endangering their immune systems that are threatened if they are exposed to COVID-19, according to the HIV / AIDS organization.
From Uganda, Kenya and Mozambique to Lebanon, Kyrgyzstan, and Trinidad and Tobago, human rights groups report hearing of sexual minorities who are forced to stay away from staying at home, despite government and NGO efforts to try to help them.
Matteo Cassolato, technical leader for HIV at the Frontline AIDS charity, said that they received an increasing number of grant applications from grassroots LGBT + groups whose members were struggling to get treatment because of COVID-19.
“People living with HIV all over the world have problems getting their routine care because they are locked up, but for groups like the LGBT + community it is more challenging because of their vulnerability and the discrimination they face,” Cassolato said.
“They were tortured and arrested in several countries, or stopped by the police when they went to get their medicine and were forced to return home. Because of stigma and homophobia, it is often difficult to explain it yourself. ”
Cassolato said his organization had just approved a grant to support transgender people in Trinidad and Tobago who had difficulty getting drugs because of closure.
Limited opening hours and high demand in health facilities and pharmacies have prevented trans people – who are more visible and can face abuse – from taking drugs, he said.
CLINICS CLOSED, LIMITED MOVEMENTS
Nearly 38 million people worldwide are currently infected with HIV, with the AIDS pandemic killing around 35 million people worldwide since it began in the 1980s.
Gay men account for nearly 20% of new HIV infections and are 27 times more likely to be infected with HIV than other men, according to UNAIDS.
Meanwhile trans women bear the risk of contracting HIV which is 12 times higher than the general population, said UNAIDS, adding that 16.5% of transgender women live with HIV.
HIV cannot be cured but the infection can remain controlled with antiretroviral drugs, or ARVs, which help reduce the level of the virus so that the virus cannot be transmitted and prevent AIDS completely.
The campaign says while around 60% of those living with HIV / AIDS have access to drugs, locking it makes it difficult for sexual minorities who already live on the margins of society.
Many live in countries where the same sex is criminalized and homophobia is widespread, suffering discrimination in the workplace, housing, education and health care.
And as COVID-19 continues to take its toll worldwide, LGBT + people are not only blamed and targeted, cessation prevents them from getting treatment, earning income and pushing many people to the brink, LGBT + rights groups say.
In Uganda, for example, where gay sex is subject to life sentences, 19 LGBT + people – some of whom are HIV-positive – are jailed, accused of risking the spread of the corona virus.
In countries such as Kenya, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan and Lebanon, closure means people cannot get ARVs due to lack of transportation, or cannot afford transportation costs due to lost income.
LGBT + friendly drop-in health centers in many countries have been forced to close or limit their hours and, in some countries, HIV / AIDS services have been diverted to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.
In Egypt, for example, clinics where patients collect their drugs are used as a COVID-19 testing center, making LGBT + people hesitate to visit.
“People living with HIV should not be afraid to take their drugs,” Joe Stork, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa at Human Rights Watch in a statement.
“The government must ensure that people who are already facing health problems can get treatment safely.”
In Mexico, more than 1,000 government workers – some of them from the LGBT + community – have been left without drugs since March due to a shortage of medicines caused by changes in the way the government buys drugs, according to human rights groups.
Ministry of education worker Victor said he was struggling to get a three-month supply of ARVs from the government in March, and is now worried that his drugs may run out again.
“I don’t know what will happen,” the 28-year-old gay man told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by telephone from his home in the city of Mexico. “I don’t know if I have to live in the same fear again, the same worry, the same uncertainty.”
NO FOOD, REAL RISK
Some LGBT + people are also forced to stop taking drugs because they have no money to buy food and cannot hold strong drugs on an empty stomach.
Real Raymond, executive director of the Mbarara Rise Foundation charity that delivers ARVs to nearly 70 LGBT + people in rural Uganda on a bicycle, says finding daily food has become a problem for some who are locked up.
Many LGBT + people are daily income earners who work in bars, casinos or other gathering places that have been closed under locking so they don’t have money for food.
“Some people stop taking daily ART because of lack of food. The drugs they prescribe are very strong and cannot be taken on an empty stomach, which makes many people stop taking the medicine completely, “he said.
“They told me that every time they took them on an empty stomach, their bodies became too weak, feverish, and had a headache.”
The World Health Organization says there is no evidence that the risk of COVID-19 differs between people living with HIV on ART compared to the general population.
But it is said that people with advanced HIV who are not taking ARVs may have an increased risk of infection and health complications associated with COVID-19.
UNAIDS has asked the government to protect resources for HIV / sexual health programs that are sensitive to the needs of LGBTI people and ensure sustainable access to ARVs, such as multi-month spending, home delivery and virtual consultations.
“It is very legitimate that there are very strong and strong responses to COVID-19 in many countries and that shows great leadership,” said Christoforos Mallouris, senior adviser for community support for UNAIDS in east and south Africa.
“But in all efforts to implement these steps, we must not forget marginalized groups such as the LGBTIQ community. More than ever we need to ensure that the population is as healthy as before if they are faced with COVID-19. ”
Reporting by Nita Bhalla @nitabhalla and Oscar Lopez @oscarlopezgib, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the Thomson Reuters charity branch, which covers the lives of people throughout the world who struggle to live free or just. Visit http://news.trust.org
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