TO say that Pakistan faced many health challenges in 2012 would be quite an understatement. Health – as, indeed, with other sectors – was dealt with in a shambolic manner by the state, with neglect perhaps being the root cause of the system’s ills.

Looking back, perennial issues concerning public health remained unresolved though the year. For starters, malnutrition in children remained high, especially in Sindh, while hospitals in the public sector showed no sign of improvement in service delivery. Infant mortality also remained high.

Two major incidents pointed to the lack of state regulation and enforcement of drug laws. The first came early in the year, in January, when around 150 people died due to substandard drugs they consumed, dispensed by a Lahore hospital. It turned out that, as per British lab reports, heart medicines given to poor patients by the Punjab Institute of Cardiology actually contained an anti-malarial substance, while patients were also given doses higher than what is recommended by medical experts. The second tragedy struck in November, when at least 17 people died in Lahore after drinking a particular brand of cough syrup.

While the Drug Regulatory Authority of Pakistan was finally given official sanction near the end of 2012, the aforementioned incidents illustrate that the authority has a lot of work to do to ensure that people have access to safe medicines. The incidents also illustrated that the provinces are still experiencing major teething problems after devolution gave control of health to the federating units.

Crippling strikes by doctors in Punjab and Balochistan also increased the people’s miseries manifold, as medical caregivers resorted to industrial action to pursue their demands. In Punjab the strike by the Young Doctors Association was over the service structure and was observed intermittently, with the longest stretch lasting 37 days.

In Balochistan, the doctors protested against frequent murders and kidnappings of members of their community. The two-month strike was only called off in mid-December.

In both cases, the doctors had some genuine demands, especially in Balochistan’s lawless landscape. But the method pursued to secure these rights was questionable. In both provinces, emergency wards as well as operation theatres were shut down for considerable periods, while in Balochistan at one point private doctors also joined their public-sector colleagues in protest.

The writer is a member of staff.

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