Virtual support services were crucial for providing continued care and education.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, it caused significant interruptions in routine care services. A substantial amount of pressure was placed on HIV programs in Nepal due to mitigation efforts like social distancing and movement restrictions. Many people no longer had access to the in-person services that they were so used to.
However, Nepal had been delivering online HIV services for the past 5 years with the PEPFAR and USAID-supported LINKAGES and EpiC programs.
Investigators from EpiC Nepal 360, in collaboration with EpiC/FHI 360 in Washington DC, supported a dramatic shift toward virtual client support and online HIV service access during the COVID-19 pandemic to continue providing the necessary care.
They presented what they learned at the 11th International AIDS Society Conference on HIV Science.
Between March and October of 2020, the investigators procured new devices and mobile data packages for workers and community based supporters so that they could ensure contact with key populations and people living with HIV.
New messages on HIV and COVID-19 prevention, care and treatment were delivered through virtual and online support services. Individuals were able to make online reservations through an upgraded portal.
Popular social media influencers were also contacted to promote treatment and care channels.
The investigators learned that 40,230 individuals received information on HIV and COVID-19 prevention through their virtual efforts, which was 5 times higher than the period between July 2019 and February 2020.
A total of 11,744 people living with HIV were reached virtually for treatment, monitoring and education support. Testing was conducted on 906 individuals, of which 141 were diagnosed with HIV.
Additionally, of those 906, 16% received positive results at a rate that was 3 times higher than the previous period.
“Our findings suggest that online approaches provided continued service access for key populations and PLHIV,” the authors wrote. “Institutionalizing virtual solutions in Nepal helped safeguard gains made in the HIV response from the ongoing COVID-19-related service disruptions and other future threats. Our experience helped facilitate formal adoption of online interventions in Nepal.”