Global Fund on HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis & Malaria: What we need to see
The global fight against the three main killer diseases – HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis (TB) and malaria – has ground to a halt. In recent years, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) teams around the world have seen worrying signs of a reversal in progress against all three diseases, compounded by the COVID-19 crisis and economic difficulties. If donor countries are to help beat these deadly pandemics, they will need to demonstrate their commitment with increased pledges at the upcoming Global Fund replenishment round.
The US$18 billion asked for by the Global Fund is the bare minimum of what is needed. In fact, this amount would leave a wider unfunded financial gap than previously, rather than providing the means to get the fight back on track. Anything less than US$18 billion will create serious problems for millions of people suffering and dying from these three diseases.
The impact of COVID-19
The seriousness of the situation today should come as no surprise. In 2019, MSF published a report warning that the HIV/TB response had come to a standstill, largely because the world was too optimistic about how much of the financing for programs to combat the diseases could be shouldered by low and middle-income countries. A new assessment by MSF teams in 2022 shows how the COVID-19 pandemic and concurrent economic and social crises have exacerbated existing problems for HIV, TB and malaria. The consequences for people living with all three diseases are dramatic.
Mortality and morbidity figures for TB clearly show the reversal of gains made in previous years. As many people are dying from TB now as they did in 2017, with 1.3 million deaths per year, while an estimated 10 million people become infected with the disease each year. Fewer people suffering from drug-resistant forms of the disease are receiving treatment now, with a 19 per cent drop for multidrug-resistant TB, a 37 per cent drop for extensively drug-resistant TB, and a 16 per cent drop for people coinfected with HIV and TB. Instead of meeting the 2020 objective to reduce the number of new TB infections worldwide by 20 per cent compared to 2015, several countries – including Guinea, South Sudan and Mozambique – have actually seen increases in infections. The 2020 objective to reduce global TB deaths has also not been reached.
It is a similar situation with HIV: the numbers of people testing for the infection have fallen by 22 per cent, while prevention services have dropped by 11 per cent. Approximately 9.5 million people living with HIV are still not on treatment, while almost one-third of those who seek to start treatment already show signs of advanced HIV disease, putting them at high risk of imminent death. During the COVID-19 crisis, large numbers of people living with HIV interrupted their treatment; now they urgently need to restart if they are to avoid the slide towards AIDS and an early death.
The number of people falling ill with malaria has increased to 2015 levels (at 59 per 1,000 people at risk). The number of people dying from malaria is up 12 per cent from 2019, with 627,000 deaths.
Consequences of funding shortfall
MSF teams, which run medical programs all over the world, witness the very real consequences of the funding shortfall for their patients. This briefing paper presents examples from seven countries: Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Guinea, Mozambique, Myanmar, South Sudan and Uganda.
One obvious consequence seen by our teams is the loss of all those gains made over previous years. We are worse off on several fronts than a few years ago, meaning that the lost ground must first be recovered before renewed progress can be made.
As countries face insufficient funding for their medical programs, they have to cut effective interventions from their plans. HIV programs for pregnant women and their unborn babies are typically one of the first victims of such cuts, as are programs targeting vulnerable groups such as men who have sex with men, sex workers and drug users.
Another effect of the funding shortfall is a substandard quality of care, which is counterproductive and potentially very dangerous for people with HIV, TB or malaria. Essential elements are left out of the standard package of care, such as tests for the level of virus in the blood, medicines to treat people with opportunistic infections and complications linked to AIDS, and adapted paediatric TB care, to name but a few.
There is also less support of community health programs, although they have proven to be highly effective. And when money is tight, implementing innovative approaches and offering the most recent treatments are delayed, despite the fact that these are sorely needed and have proved their value in the past.
Ultimately, it is the patients who bear the brunt of the funding gaps. People can be forced towards harmful coping mechanisms, such as borrowing money at very high interest rates, pawning their assets or deprioritising other necessary household expenditure, which in turn increases their vulnerability and pushes them further into poverty.
An estimated US $130 billion is needed for HIV, TB and malaria for the period 2024-26. With the Global Fund supplying 14 per cent of that budget – assuming that US$ 18 billion is raised – and other external funding supplying another 19 per cent, domestic funding should account for 45 per cent. This leaves a huge gap of 22 per cent. But at present, it looks very unlikely that enough domestic funding will be mobilised to cover 45 per cent of the US$ 130 billion. With over-optimistic expectations for domestic funding, we can expect an actual gap that is much bigger than the predicted 22 per cent.
The key question is therefore if the September Global Fund replenishment conference will succeed in mobilising the necessary funding and if countries will step up their pledges by at least 30 per cent on previous pledges. Some firm commitments have already been made by the US and Japan, but other countries are keeping us in suspense as to if, when and how much they will pledge. A shortfall of European donors, in particular, would have a doubly negative effect, as it would proportionally cut into the US pledge, which is limited to a maximum of one-third of the total amount.
It is important to remember that the US$18 billion asked for by the Global Fund replenishment is an absolute minimum and will need to be complemented by other international funding. At country level, priority will have to be given to fill existing and future gaps. Many international donors have withdrawn from bilateral funding of HIV, TB and malaria programmes; to complement countries’ contributions to the Global Fund, donors should re-engage or risk seeing all the progress undone.