Together, we can beat infectious diseases for good
Twenty years ago, the United Kingdom brought its strength to bear on one of the world’s most pressing health crises by joining the international community to form the Global Fund – a partnership to fight HIV, TB and malaria. At the time, these diseases seemed unstoppable. They were claiming millions of lives, with devastating consequences for families and communities around the world.
The Global Fund partnership, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, has turned the tide against these diseases and saved more that 44 million lives. In countries where the Global Fund invests, AIDS-related deaths have dropped by 65 per cent, malaria deaths by 45 per cent and TB deaths by 28 per cent since 2002. From the beginning, the United Kingdom has remained front and center in supporting the Global Fund to achieve these amazing results, contributing approximately GBP 4 billion to date.
Covid-19 is having a devastating impact on the fight against HIV, TB and malaria
Today, this remarkable investment in the fight against infectious diseases is in jeopardy. Covid-19 is not only claiming millions of lives but is also reversing the progress we have made in the fight against other diseases. A report released by the Global Fund shows that Covid-19 is having a devastating impact on the fight against HIV, TB and malaria. For the first time in the Global Fund’s history, key programmatic results for these three diseases declined in 2020.
The knock-on impact of the pandemic on HIV, TB and malaria has been severe. The number of people tested and treated for TB dropped by around 1 million patients compared with 2019. We also saw a 22 per cent decrease in HIV testing, an 11 per cent decrease in the number of people reached by HIV prevention services, and a 4.3 per cent drop in testing for malaria.
Without the rapid and determined actions that took place across the Global Fund partnership to mitigate the impact of Covid-19 on the three diseases, the fallout could have been even worse. The Global Fund responded swiftly to Covid-19, reprogramming savings from existing grants, leveraging our expertise and strong global networks, and raising new funds to fight the pandemic and protect gains made against HIV, TB and malaria. As of October, the Global Fund had provided over US$4 billion (about GBP 2.9 billion) to support more than 100 low and middle-income countries with lifesaving tests, treatments and other medical supplies.
Those investments also supported countries to protect front-line health workers; adapt lifesaving HIV, TB and malaria programs; and reinforce fragile systems for health. In the fight against Covid-19, the Global Fund is now the primary provider of financial support to low- and middle-income countries for everything but vaccines.
The Global Fund partnership has also catalysed a multitude of health innovations that can be scaled up to regain lost ground against HIV, TB and malaria and other infectious diseases. Such efforts include co-testing for infectious diseases, multimonth dispensing of medicine, and using digital tools for prevention activities and treatment support.
In addition, the crucial role of community health workers became even more apparent in 2020. There are more than 2 million community health workers in countries where the Global Fund invests, often serving rural and hard-to-reach populations. These health workers, which the Global Fund has supported over the last two decades, took up and often led the fight against Covid-19 even as they continued their role in the fight against HIV, TB, malaria and other diseases.
Investments in health systems by the Global Fund partnership over the past 20 years – in community health workers, laboratories, supply chains, surveillance, data systems – have formed a strong foundation for the Covid-19 response in many countries. Those investments have also prepared countries to better respond to future pandemic threats we know will come. Building on this existing infrastructure is the speediest and the surest way to achieve true global health security.
Two decades ago, the Global Fund partnership brought the world together, creating a powerful force to fight the world’s deadliest infectious diseases. The millions of lives saved and results achieved over the past 20 years, and most recently during the Covid-19 pandemic, are clear proof that political will, global commitment and community leadership can force the world’s deadliest infectious diseases into retreat. It is time for another global push to save lives: We must invest vigorously to fight Covid-19 and to protect the gains made against HIV, TB and malaria. Continued support from the UK and other nations for this proven mechanism is essential to achieving those interlinked goals.
We did it once, and we can do it again. Together, we can continue our progress against HIV, TB and malaria, and strengthen our global foundation to fight future disease outbreaks and pandemics.
Lord Fowler is a crossbench peer. Catherine West is the Labour MP for Hornsey and Wood Green. Virendra Sharma is the Labour MP for Ealing Southall. Peter Sands is the executive director of the Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.
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