HIV/AIDS in Pakistan

Published July 30, 2019

A NEW report by UNAIDS has some upsetting insights on Pakistan, which has been placed on a list of 11 countries with the highest prevalence rates of HIV/AIDS. While in other countries, HIV/AIDS cases are on the decline, there has been a worrying upsurge of the disease in Pakistan. According to the report, the number of HIV/AIDS patients in the country rose to over 160,000 in 2018. Of these, around 110,000 were men; 48,000 women; and 5,500 children under the age of 15. Approximately 6,400 died from the disease. A decade ago, in 2008, the number of patients living with HIV/AIDS in the country stood at 4,300, showing a considerable increase. Undoubtedly, the number of patients would have risen even higher in 2019, in light of the sudden outbreak of the disease in Larkana in the past few months, particularly amongst children, some under the age of two.

For years, health researchers have been warning of the potential threat of an HIV/AIDS epidemic in the country, but an ostrich-like attitude and inability to talk about things as they are has resulted in the issue aggravating over the years. Because HIV/AIDS is still associated with what is condemned as socially deviant sexual activity, stigma surrounds the topic in our largely conservative society. HIV/AIDS was understood to be more prevalent amongst marginalised communities without access to treatment, such as the transgender population, drug addicts and commercial sex workers, but there is reason to believe it is increasingly spilling into the general population. In Larkana, for instance, the spread of the disease was traced to a single doctor reusing infected syringes on patients, though a JIT report cleared him of intentionally injecting the children with HIV/AIDS.

The cases in Larkana bring back memories of a small village in Sargodha in January 2018 when blood screening found 669 residents infected with the virus. It was largely blamed on a thriving quackery racket, where unsterilised equipment and infected syringes were used on an unsuspecting population, many of them women and children. In later interviews with HIV/AIDS patients in Sargodha, few were aware of how the disease was spread and what implications it had for their health. Even more recently, a news story that failed to garner as much attention as Larkana stated that there were around 2,800 patients registered with the Punjab AIDS Control Programme for free medicines, hailing from five districts in the province. Most were unaware they had the disease until they underwent screenings while donating blood, travelling abroad or undergoing surgery. In a culture of shame and silence, and in the absence of a nationwide HIV/AIDS awareness programme, few know the facts about their illness or how to ask for help until it is too late.

Published in Dawn, July 30th, 2019

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