COVID-19 and HIV: What you need to know

It’s a difficult time for everyone right now, but those of us with HIV might feel especially concerned. Does having HIV make you more vulnerable? How do you best look after yourself? What do I do about appointments and medication? We answer some of your frequently asked questions below. 

What do we know so far?

The novel Coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) and the disease it causes (COVID-19) are new to the medical world, so our understanding is increasing every day. So far, however, there is no evidence that people living with HIV are more susceptible to Coronavirus infection or experience a worse disease course than someone of the same age, gender and general health who doesn’t have HIV.

However, it is also fair to say that until recently the epidemics of COVID-19 and HIV have not really shared the same geographical space, for example Sub-Saharan Africa, this is when we are likely to see differences when large numbers of people who are not on ARVs and have weakened immune systems come into contact with SARS-CoV-2.

Should I be entirely ‘self-isolating’ for 12 weeks because I have HIV?

Many news sources are using the term “supressed immune system” or “immunosuppressed” when talking about people especially vulnerable during this pandemic, however, PLHIV who are taking treatment, and that have a CD4 count above 350 and an undetectable viral load, are not considered to be part of this category.

That said, almost half of people living with HIV in Europe are aged 50 or above and with age often comes other co-existing health conditions (often known as comorbidities). Cardiovascular and chronic lung disease are both known to lead to worse COVID-19 outcomes and are more common in people living with HIV than the general population.

If you have HIV, are under 70, and have no serious co-existing health conditions you do not need to ‘self-isolate’ or ‘shield’ for 12 weeks unless directed to do so by a healthcare professional.

I received a text from the NHS saying I should self-isolate because of my HIV but I’m otherwise well

It appears that during the week starting April 6th some people living with HIV, who are otherwise fit and well, were sent a text message in error stating that they should “self-isolate” for twelve weeks due to their “condition”. The British HIV Association (BHIVA) is working with the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) to investigate how and why this happened.

For now the guidance for people living with HIV remains unchanged.

What can I do to protect myself and stay healthy during the pandemic?

As mentioned earlier lung disease is one of the factors that could worsen your outcome if you contract the Coronavirus. We also know that smoking disproportionality affects the lung health of people living with HIV. We would recommend that if you are currently smoking that you stop now, with the assistance of a smoking cessation service where possible.

Make sure you’re up to date on your influenza and pneumococcal vaccinations.

Keep fit and healthy. Now, more than ever, you want your body to be in fighting form. Try to eat healthily and take your daily exercise.

Practice good hygiene. We’ve all been told repeatedly to wash our hands, but it really is the best way to protect yourself and those around you. Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water every time you leave and enter your home, assist someone else, accept a delivery, cough or sneeze in your hands.

Practice social distancing. Remain at home whenever possible and in accordance with the laws in your area. Keep at least 2 metres (6ft) distance from other people when out of your home. Do not meet other people from outside your household. Wash your hands when you return home.

I have heard that my HIV treatment will protect me?

Whilst it’s true that some HIV treatments are being studied none have yet showed any efficacy either in treatment or prevention of the Coronavirus.

You should continue to take your HIV treatment as directed by your HIV clinic, and do not share your HIV medication with anyone else. Make sure you have at least 30 days supply at home, and if not contact your clinic to arrange a delivery or collection.

There is no issue with HIV medication supply, and you do not need to stockpile.

Will my HIV clinic appointments still happen?

Many HIV clinics have now moved to remote appointments. In this instance your clinic may not take bloods but base your appointment on the last time you gave bloods. Your appointment will likely be done over the phone or an online video platform, with your medications delivered to your home.

What to do should I experience symptoms?

If you start to experience mild symptoms you should treat yourself at home. This means getting plenty of rest and sleep, drinking plenty of water, and taking paracetamol (knowns as acetaminophen some places in the world) to reduce your fever.

If your symptoms become worse do not go to your GP surgery, pharmacy or hospital, you should stay at home and contact NHS 111.

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This article was fact checked by our Medical Director, Doctor Stephen Taylor, on Friday 3rd April 2020.