Surge in HIV/AIDS cases in Punjab: Is health dept in denial or downplaying it?

Updated June 27, 2019

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An international team of experts from WHO is investigating into HIV outbreak in southern Sindh.  Reuters/File
An international team of experts from WHO is investigating into HIV outbreak in southern Sindh. Reuters/File

FAISALABAD: Despite an alarming surge in reported cases of HIV/AIDS in Faisalabad region, the provincial health department seems to be either in denial or deliberately downplaying the threat as no measures are being taken for large-scale screening, nor resources being allocated for combating the killer disease.

The issue was highlighted when this newspaper reported the surge by mentioning more than 70-90 HIV/AIDS cases were being reported with the Punjab AIDS Control Programme (PACP) centre set up in two rooms of the Allied Hospital here that had been providing screening services and free medicines to some 2,800 registered patients.

The Young Doctors Association secretary general Dr Salman Kazmi claims that revelation of HIV/AIDS patients’ data registered with the PACP centre was just tip of the iceberg.

He said to gauge the seriousness of the threat and to have a clear picture the Punjab government should set up screening camps at all the major hospitals of the province.

Doctors blame the quacks, sex workers and drug addicts mainly for the surge, suggesting measures to be taken by the district administration for keeping a check on their activities.

Deputy Commissioner Saifullah Dogar had told Dawn on June 14 replying to a query about the PACP data sharing with the district administration, that their was no such mechanism in place. However, he had said, “I have written a letter to the health department for sharing of [PACP] data with the district health authority.”

On June 25, when the DC was again asked about data sharing he did not respond.

Sources said the PACP has also failed to maintain the cold chain which was mandatory for ensuring the efficacy of the HIV/AIDS screening kits as well as the medicines.

The PACP has been given two rooms at the outpatient department of the Allied Hospital where the staff screens the patients being referred from different wards, registers new patients and provides free of cost medicines to them.

The sources said that the room allocated for storage of screening kits and medicines lacked any cooling system till the issue was raised by the media. Recently, the stock of kits and drugs had been moved to an air-conditioned room, they added.

Pakistan had been considered a country with low HIV prevalence for long, but in 2017 some 20,000 new cases were reported in the country, according to a UN report quoted by Gulf News.

An international team of experts from the World Health Organization is investigating into HIV outbreak in southern Sindh after over 700 people were diagnosed with the virus in a matter of weeks, most of them children.

Doctors at the Allied and the DHQ hospitals here have suggested that given the increase in HIV/AIDS cases, the government must establish separate wards for such patients, like it did for dengue patients.

They said the local PACP centre was just providing the patients with free medicines, but they had nowhere to go if they developed any complication because of the disease.

They said lymphoma, respiratory infections were common complications of HIV when it progressed to AIDS. They added that for an HIV positive person the risk of contacting TB was 200 times more than a normal individual. Similarly, they added that for the AIDS patients the chances to have frequent Diarrhea were also many times greater.

Dr Kazmi said HIV/AIDS screening tests must be made mandatory for all the patients being treated at the hospitals. Two to three months after the test, he said a strategy should be evolved in the light of the gathered data to take preventive measures. He also suggested launching of an awareness campaign regarding HIV/AIDS and hepatitis in the educational institutions.

The sources said that the government’s lack of seriousness could be gauged from the fact that no specialist postgraduate doctor had been appointed at the Faisalabad PACP Centre to properly examine and guide the HIV/AIDS patients about the disease.

They said a couple of days ago Punjab health minister Yasmin Rashid had visited the Allied Hospital to preside over the syndicate meeting, but did not bother to visit the PACP centre although she had been asking about the number of the registered HIV/AIDS patients.

Talking to reporters the minister categorically rejected the suggestion of setting up a separate ward for the HIV/AIDS patients. She said the PACP was not hiding anything, and rather it was ensuring proper treatment of the registered patients.

The Pakistan Medical Association has on its own displayed banners at the state-run hospital to create awareness regarding the HIV/AIDS.

The spokesperson for the PACP had been repeatedly asked for the programme director’s version on the situation but he did not respond.

Published in Dawn, June 27th, 2019