Public Health Experts Call for New “Global Health Order” at Virtual Fast-Track Cities 2020 Conference on HIV and COVID-19

WASHINGTON, DC, USA (September 10, 2020) – International public health experts called for the development of a new “global health order” today at the Virtual Fast-Track Cities 2020 conference, on a day that representatives from 18 Fast-Track Cities illustrated the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on people living with HIV in their communities. The second annual conference of 300-plus Fast-Track Cities welcomed almost 1,500 registered online delegates to the two-day conference.

“It is clear that COVID-19 will be with us for many more months to come,” said Dr. Ren Minghui, World Health Organization (WHO) Assistant Director-General for Universal Health Coverage and Communicable/Non-Communicable Diseases. He highlighted a recent WHO survey from 91 countries, whose data indicated a diversion of healthcare personnel from existing duties (such as providing HIV and other essential services) and decreases in outpatient volume were among the top causes of disruptions to continuity of care.

During his closing remarks, IAPAC President/CEO Dr. José M. Zuniga said that, “Countries cannot hijack infrastructures created over many years for mature pandemics such as HIV and tuberculosis (TB) without a steep cost paid by people living with HIV and other diseases against which we have been making steady progress. He added that countries also “cannot siphon off funding for pandemic preparedness even as we confront economic recessions. Surely, we can prioritize realizing the right to health for all and the right to cities and municipalities as places that guarantee a decent and full life for all their inhabitants.”

Dr. Ricardo Baptista Leite, Founder and President of the UNITE network of parliamentarians, proposed that “the current [COVID-19] pandemic presents an extraordinary opportunity to reorganize the global health order.” He spoke of the need for a “NATO for health” focused on the operational aspects of multilateral public health policy in lieu of the more diplomatic and technical focus of global institutions such as the WHO.

The Virtual Fast-Track Cities 2020 conference was convened by IAPAC in partnership with the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) and the Fast-Track Cities Institute, and with sponsorship support from Gilead Sciences and ViiV Healthcare.


Highlights from Fast-Track Cities Case Studies

Public health experts and civic leaders from Atlanta, Bangkok, Jakarta, Johannesburg, Kigali, Kyiv, Lisbon, London, Lusaka, Maputo City, Mexico City, Milan, Melbourne, Montréal, New York City, Paris, São Paulo, and Yaoundé described how local communities have responded and adapted to the impact of COVID-19, especially with respect to people living with HIV, tuberculosis, and HCV.

Representatives from European cities said that they were generally able to harness innovations such as telemedicine to maintain health services, particularly for marginalized populations such as migrants, homeless people, and people who use drugs. Olena Lukashevych from the Kyiv City Public Health Centre in the Ukraine stressed that supply chain disruptions persist for the provision of personal protective equipment, medicines, and testing capacity.

Simon Ruth of Thorne Harbour Health in Melbourne, Australia, said that social media messaging has been one of the primary forms of communication during the severe lockdowns that have been seen recently, particularly in the state of Victoria where he operates. He noted that it is currently unclear to what extent reported declines in new infections of HBV (22%), HCV (22%), syphilis (5%), HIV (10%), and gonorrhea (20%) represent reduced use of testing services or actual declines in sexual activity.

Suilanji Sivile from the Rwandan Ministry of Health testified that although his country has so far avoided any “catastrophic” incidents, such as running out of supplies, the country has nevertheless been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. He added that some people living with HIV in Kigali and across Rwanda have had to switch to alternative antiretroviral medications when their normal medicine is in short supply due to stock-outs.

Maputo City Council representative Bélia Nyambir Xirinda emphasized the role of creating safe spaces for people infected with and recovered from COVID-19, adding that although the capital city accounts for 25% of the confirmed cases in Mozambique, only 28 deaths have been attributed to COVID-19 across the country at large.

“The [COVID-19] epidemic has moved from more urban to more rural communities,” said Dr. Carlos del Rio of Emery University in Atlanta, GA, USA, who reported that although the State of Georgia has made tremendous progress, dropping to a current rate of 16 confirmed COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents, much work remains to end the public emergency locally and abroad. “The impact on HIV has not been as significant as we thought it would be,” said del Rio, however, he warned that underlying comorbidities such as diabetes and hypertension remain a cause for concern regardless of a person’s HIV status.

“A lot of things that seemed impossible six months ago have now become possible,” said Dr. Anisha Gandhi of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, who also said she believes the COVID-19 pandemic presents an opportunity for systemic change.