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New WHO report shows increased risk of severe COVID-19 for people with HIV–here’s what it means

Here are some of the main take-aways from the report for people living with HIV in the Bay Area and in the U.S., according to our vice president of medical affairs.

A new report released by the World Health Organization (WHO) finds that people living with HIV who are admitted to the hospital with COVID-19 are significantly more likely to face severe or fatal COVID-19 than people who are HIV-negative. Even after adjusting for disease severity and other conditions, HIV increased the likelihood of dying from COVID-19 after a hospital admission by 30%. The report reveals that 23% of people living with HIV who were hospitalized with COVID-19, died. 

Diabetes and hypertension (high blood pressure) were also found to independently increase risk of both severe COVID-19 and mortality in people living with HIV. Men over age 65 were at highest risk.

“This study reinforces our recommendation that people living with HIV–and everyone who is eligible–receive a COVID-19 vaccine,” said Janessa Broussard, RN, MSN, AGNP-C, vice president of medical affairs. “The bottom line is that people who are vaccinated from COVID-19 are protected. In the case of breakthrough infection, symptoms are likely to be mild. And, we know that the vaccines are safe and effective for people living with HIV.”  

The WHO study is important because it adds weight to the recommendation that people living with HIV around the world be prioritized for COVID-19 vaccines, said Broussard. “These vaccines are essential. We strongly recommend that people living with HIV receive the vaccine series, and we advocate for other countries to gain access to the vaccine as well.” 

The WHO study used data collected from 37 countries around the world, although 95% of people living with HIV included in the analysis were from South Africa. 

South Africa, slow to ramp up vaccination, has seen more than 1.8 million cases of COVID-19 and nearly 60,000 deaths. South Africa also has one of the largest HIV epidemics in the world, with about 19% of adults living with HIV. 

“It can be tough to compare data globally,” said Broussard. “That’s because access to treatment and resources varies so widely across countries. It may be easier for people living with HIV in San Francisco, for instance, to access antiretroviral therapies and other resources that keep them healthy and well than it is for someone in another place.”

Broussard emphasized that increased fear shouldn’t necessarily be the response to the outcomes shared by WHO.   

“We are concerned about people in our community who are living with HIV who are over age 65, who may have other conditions like diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease,” she said. “We know that the immune system declines with age, and, of the very few cases, the majority of breakthrough COVID-19 infections have occurred in those 65 or older.  Continued diligence in protective measures is important.” 

Have questions about the COVID-19 vaccine? See why medical experts recommend the vaccine for people living with HIV, and find out where to get vaccinated.   

About the author

San Francisco AIDS Foundation

San Francisco AIDS Foundation

San Francisco AIDS Foundation promotes health, wellness and social justice for communities most impacted by HIV through sexual health and substance use services, advocacy, and community partnerships. Each year more than 25,000 people rely on SFAF programs and services, and millions more access SFAF health information online.