Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on National Health Services Dr Zafar Mirza on Sunday announced that after seeking the advice of the Sindh health minister, he had called an international rapid response team in the aftermath of the recent HIV/AIDS outbreak in the province.
Pakistan is a considered a low-prevalence country for HIV but this month the news of hundreds of children and adults allegedly infected by an HIV-positive doctor in Sindh's Larkana district made the headlines. Following this, 56 more suspected cases of HIV were detected in Ratodero.
Addressing a press conference today, Dr Mirza said that a joint team of the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) will reach Karachi in the next two to three days. The team of around 10 experts will go to the affected areas and conduct a "proper investigation" along with local doctors, he added.
The SAPM said that he was hopeful that in the coming weeks, they will be able to determine the reasons behind the outbreak.
He told the news conference that when he went and saw the situation first hand, he found that the provincial government was trying to control the situation on the basis of its resources and capacity. However, while announcing the visit of an international rapid response team, he said that he had noted that these efforts were insufficient, particularly with regards to the investigation of the outbreak.
"The recent spread of HIV/AIDS among children was either caused by unsafe injections or by a reason that was not yet known," Dr Mirza said.
He explained that the spread of the disease among children in such a large number could either be because they had received injections through contaminated syringes or they had received blood transfusions. However, he stressed that so many children could not have received blood transfusions and, at the same time, because the affected children were of a young age, other factors that cause the disease could not be given much significance.
Dr Mirza said that the federal government has been working with the provincial government to cooperate on the matter since the start of the HIV outbreak.
He said that medicines were being provided for all adult and child patients of HIV/AIDS and further new medicines were being ordered as the current supply was found to be insufficient due to an abnormally large number of child affectees.
According to the special assistant, as many as 50,000 screening kits have also been ordered and three treatment centres are being set up in Sindh "so that the work could be done in a more authorised manner".
Dr Mirza said that when a child is found to have HIV/AIDS, it is a chronic condition which requires them to take medicine their whole life.
He reiterated that the federal government will cooperate with the provincial government, which would be required to do long-term planning on the matter.
Dr Mirza said that in his opinion, the number of reported cases of HIV/AIDS in Pakistan was much lower than the actual number of cases in the country.
He added that as per their "conservative estimate", there were 163,000 patients of HIV/AIDS in the country. However, only approximately 25,000 were registered with national and provincial HIV/AIDS programmes, Dr Mirza said, adding that from the 25,000, about 16,000 came continuously for treatment and took their medicines.
He recalled that there have been HIV outbreaks in the country in the past periodically including in Sindh in 2016 and in Punjab in 2008.
"Our problem here is that HIV/AIDS is seen to be a big stigma," Dr Mirza said, noting that people were not ready to speak about it and often see it as the basis for disrepute.
"So our opinion is that we need to deal with the matter with some frankness," he said.
Observing that Pakistan had the highest rate of hepatitis C in the world, Dr Mirza said that if the factors that cause the spread of hepatitis C were the same as for HIV/AIDS, then the number of patients of the latter would be much higher than the estimated figure.
The special assistant during his press conference also revealed that Prime Minister Imran Khan would make a "big announcement" for the health sector in Pakistan in the next two weeks.