AS countries observe World AIDS Day today, it is a moment of reflection for Pakistan, which is grappling with an alarming escalation in HIV cases. HIV is transmitted through certain bodily fluids and slowly strips away the body’s ability to defend itself against infection. In the absence of treatment, it progresses to AIDS, where the body’s defences are completely broken down and even the slightest illness can be fatal. Recent reports paint a grim picture of our struggle against this public health crisis, especially given the international progress in managing and reducing HIV spread. According to data from UNAIDS, Pakistan has gone from 75,000 HIV cases in 2010 to 270,000 in 2022, indicating an inadequate response to this epidemic. Only a fraction of those diagnosed receive the necessary antiretroviral therapy, leaving most at risk of further transmission. The core challenge lies in the lack of awareness about one’s HIV status. This ignorance is a double-edged sword, which not only delays treatment but also perpetuates the stigma associated with HIV. This stigma, rooted in societal norms and misconceptions, is a considerable barrier to effective prevention and treatment strategies. The rise in infections among women and children is particularly alarming, underscoring the need for targeted interventions. The number of cases among women rose from 9,000 in 2010 to 49,000 in 2022 and in children from 830 in 2010 to 6,700 in 2022.
Pakistan’s reliance on foreign donors for its HIV programme underscores the urgent need for the government to assume financial ownership and reinforce its commitment. Comparatively, India’s significant reduction in new infections — from 120,000 in 2010 to 66,000 in 2022 — exemplifies the impact of a proactive and coordinated response. On this World AIDS Day, it is crucial to recognise that the fight against HIV/AIDS extends beyond the health sector. It demands a societal shift to dispel myths, combat discrimination, and foster a supportive environment. Mental health support, stringent infection control in medical facilities, and inclusive policies for marginalised communities are essential. At this critical juncture, Pakistan faces a choice: escalate efforts to align with global targets for eliminating HIV/AIDS or continue facing its relentless spread. The path forward requires bold action, unwavering political will, and a unified national response to change the course of this preventable and treatable disease in Pakistan.
Published in Dawn, December 1st, 2023