AS countries mark World AIDS Day on Dec 1, a timely report from Unicef has renewed concerns about the severe challenges Pakistan continues to face in understanding HIV and AIDS, removing stigmas associated with it, and providing adequate treatment for those afflicted with it. The report in question is quite sobering. It states that 110,000 children and adolescents were killed by the disease worldwide in 2021, while another 310,000 were infected. A senior Unicef official warned that: “Though children have long lagged behind adults in the AIDS response, the stagnation seen in the last three years is unprecedented [...] Every day that goes by without progress, over 300 children and adolescents lose their fight against AIDS.” This is a grave matter, and we cannot ignore the report’s findings, thinking they do not apply to our context. In fact, Pakistan has, in the same time period referenced in the report, seen a major outbreak of HIV in Ratodero, Sindh, where more than 1,000 children were infected with the deadly disease in 2019 due to medical malpractice. Fifty-two of those children had passed away within two years, while the families of those who were living with the disease complained of not having the financial or public health resources to ameliorate their children’s suffering.
Recent reports in the local media have raised the alarm over a “sustained growth” in HIV-positive cases this year, citing Ministry of National Health Services data. Experts fear the disease may now be spreading to the general population from those who are considered traditionally at risk. The takeaway should be that the public needs to be urgently educated regarding the prevention of HIV and AIDS. Pakistan needs informed conversations about HIV to counter moral panic about the disease being the result of ‘immoral practices’. Such attitudes dehumanise those who suffer from the sustained and painful consequences of contracting HIV, add to their psychological trauma and unnecessarily complicate efforts to trace and contain or eliminate the disease completely.
Published in Dawn, December 1st, 2022