Pakistan’s southern Sindh province experienced an unprecedented HIV outbreak after nearly 700 people, mainly children, were diagnosed with the virus. Concerns became prevalent in April when parents in the city of Ratodero alerted doctors of their children falling ill with uncontrollable fevers, a common symptom of the virus, and not recovering with medicine. The HIV-positive children had HIV-negative parents, leading health officials to believe the virus spread as a result of dirty syringes. In response, Pakistani authorities, the World Health Organization, UNAIDS, and UNICEF are offering services and support to infected individuals, such as free testing, while pursuing preventative measures, including shutting down unsafe clinics and barbershops and educating the public in hopes of destigmatizing the virus.
Several families’ doctor visits were traced back to one doctor, Dr. Muzaffar Ghanghro, who is currently in jail under the charges of “criminal medical negligence,” according to Pakistan’s SAMAA TV. One parent allegedly witnessed the doctor “appl[ying] the same [IV] drip on 50 children without changing the needle.”
A senior fund portfolio manager at the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria, however, believes that hundreds of people being diagnosed cannot likely be attributed to just one person or one case, but instead to “a widespread practice.”
This is unsurprising considering Pakistan’s increasing HIV/AIDS epidemic. UNAIDS has issued warnings of the virus’ expanding presence, especially amongst the nation’s younger population. Throughout a seven-year period (2010-2017), HIV-related cases amongst Pakistan’s youth has increased 29-percent. Zafar Mirza, a top health official, estimates that approximately 163,000 people are infected with HIV/AIDS in Pakistan.
The problem is exacerbated with the stigma surrounding the virus. Braira Wahid, an infectious disease researcher in Pakistan, explains that “[people] prefer to stay undiagnosed because of the stigma attached with HIV/AIDS,” and even describes an “honor killing” of an HIV-positive family member occurred prior to the recent outbreak.
The national and international collaborative efforts to address and control this epidemic seems to point towards a progressive push in addressing Pakistan’s greater HIV/AIDS problem. A lack of education and accessible treatments in impoverished communities created an ideal social climate for such an outbreak to occur. The lack of proper healthcare funding across the poverty line threatens the livelihood of individuals in these communities as they desperately try to seek safe medical care where there is little to none. The free HIV screenings currently being offered in Pakistan’s Sindh province help temporarily fill this gap in resources previously taken up by fraudulent doctors and their duplicitous practices such as with the accused Dr. Ghanghro.
Additionally, the emphasis on educating the public on the realities of HIV/AIDS will hopefully encourage individuals and families alike to be more aware of unhygienic medical practices while simultaneously realizing that being HIV-positive is nothing to be embarrassed about. An increased understanding and acceptance of the virus is important in ensuring that people are properly diagnosed and receive the necessary treatments. It is important to address the epidemic’s catalyst at its source: HIV/AIDS’ stigmatization.
Ignoring the problem is never the way to solve it.
Hopefully, the free screenings lead to free treatments as local and global authorities realize the importance of accessible healthcare in preventing the spread of infectious diseases. Awareness campaigns and affordable treatments should be the focus of governments and the global health community in order to not only curb the HIV/AIDS crisis but to also prevent other serious medical concerns that impact a nation’s life expectancy and infant mortality rate.
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