IN a world roiled by the coronavirus pandemic, it can be easy to forget there is another global epidemic that has been around far longer. And the numbers are staggering. Since the late 1970s, an estimated 42m people have died of AIDS-related illnesses. Until end 2019, there were 38m people living with HIV. In Pakistan, according to the National AIDS Control Programme, an estimated 190,000 people are infected with this disease; of them, only about 44,000 are aware of their status and registered with treatment centres. The current trend is not very encouraging. Over the last few years, the situation in Pakistan has evolved from low prevalence to concentrated epidemic, with HIV prevalence among injecting drug users registering over 5pc in at least eight major cities. Other high-risk groups are well on their way to reaching this threshold. Nearly 5m people, categorised as bridge population, are in direct sexual contact with these groups and susceptible to being infected through unprotected sex. That could be the gateway to HIV/AIDS becoming a generalised contagion. Ignorance about the disease is rife: according to UNAIDS, only 4.29pc of youth between 15 and 24 years of age in Pakistan correctly identified ways of preventing sexual transmission of HIV. From ignorance stems stigma, which mars patients’ quality of life immeasurably and contributes to the culture of secrecy surrounding the ailment.

A report in this paper yesterday, World AIDS Day, recalled one of the worst local outbreaks of HIV/AIDS in Pakistan and the toll it has taken on the patients and their families. In June 2019, out of 27,300 individuals screened for HIV/AIDS in the Ratodero taluka of Larkana district, 803 — including 661 children — were found to be HIV-positive. An investigation later found that poor infection control practices, including shockingly elementary blunders such as reusing syringes and drips, were largely to blame for the spike. As a result, hundreds of clinics and unlicensed blood banks were closed across the province and a new antiretroviral treatment centre for children was set up in the district to provide easy access to medication. But as the news report yesterday revealed, the psychological toll of being treated like social pariahs makes the ordeal of patients and their families intolerable. A more effective media campaign is needed. An aware populace will not only take precautions to avoid being infected, but also realise there is no need to shun HIV-positive people.

Published in Dawn, December 2nd, 2020

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