AS World AIDS Day was marked on Dec 1, it came as a sobering reminder of how newer, major health hazards — the Covid-19 pandemic foremost amongst them — have forced onto the back-burner another frighteningly endemic issue. UNAIDS estimates that Pakistan has the fastest-growing number of AIDS cases in Asia, while the National AIDS Control Programme provides the following figures: 0.24m people estimated to be HIV sufferers; 46,912 people living with HIV that were (until June) registered in 50 anti-retroviral treatment centres; 26,096 people receiving anti-retroviral therapy; and, 7,264 people who inject drugs and are on ARV therapy.

AIDS/HIV in particular presents a tricky battle because of the associated stigma. When the disease was initially identified many decades ago, it was generally believed that unsafe sexual practices were the prime cause. That has left an indelible stain on a virus that is transmitted through several other means, including mother-to-foetus, unscreened blood transfusions and, in Pakistan, via improperly sterilised surgical equipment and the reuse of infected needles. Again, this last carries with it the stigma of injecting-drug-users. But there are examples beyond that as was seen in Larkana when, during a 2019 major outbreak, the spread of HIV was detected amongst hundreds of very young children of a local community. Upon investigation, it was found that almost all the children had received injections at the hands of unscrupulous ‘GPs’ — in other words, the reuse of contaminated syringes appeared to be the main cause. A study published at the time in the Lancet medical journal revealed that in the preceding two decades, “up to eight outbreaks of HIV [had] been reported in Pakistan, with more than half in a single district — Larkana”. In addition to the havoc wreaked by ‘quacks’ or unqualified ‘doctors’, the reuse of razors was blamed. With so many other burdens on the quality of lives of its citizens and on its healthcare system, the country must bring the issue back to the forefront immediately.

Published in Dawn, December 5th, 2021

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