Islamabad: Pakistanis with COVID-19 are risking their lives and navigating a shady black market to get blood plasma transfusions, despite scant medical proof about the remedy’s effectiveness.
Convalescent plasma treatment, where the antibody-rich part of the blood from a recovered patient is transfused to a coronavirus sufferer, is growing in popularity across Pakistan amid widely circulating claims of success on social media.
Like some other nations, Pakistan is conducting medical trials on the treatment, which has shown promising signs but is far from proven.
But with lengthy wait times and uncertain access, people are turning to the black market and private clinics, where there are no guarantees about the safety or origin of the blood product.
“It’s all born out of desperation because everyone wants to believe there is an answer to this (coronavirus) question,” Fareeha Irfan, a public health specialist.
“It is easy to exploit the people who are not very well versed in what’s going on in the scientific world. It is very easy to coerce them.”
Pakistan has declared about 260,000 cases of coronavirus and some 5,500 deaths. With low testing rates, the true figure is thought to be considerably higher.
The Pakistan Society of Haematology said plasma hype had led the public - and even some health professionals - to believe the therapy was standard treatment for the virus.
“Use of convalescent plasma can sometimes lead to life-threatening transfusion reactions and transmissions of infections,” the society said.
Nawaz Murad, a lecturer from Lahore, said doctors advised him to organise plasma therapy as a last-ditch attempt to save his father, rapidly deteriorating from COVID-19.
Frantic, he turned to Facebook, where he found a donor within hours.
To complete the treatment quickly, the family did not get the blood screened, leaving open the risk of infections such as hepatitis or HIV.
“Of course it was worth the risk, there was no other option but to get the transfusion done as soon as possible,” Murad said.
“It was not a normal situation, my family were under immense stress.”
The donor provided his plasma for free, but Murad paid the equivalent of about $100 to a doctor to provide the transfusion at home. Some private clinics are reportedly charging up to $300 in the country.
Legal expert Osama Malik said provincial and federal authorities are “looking the other way” as non-approved centres administer plasma therapy at high prices.
“The seven (official) centres are not enough to deal with the high number of desperate patients,” he said.
Murad’s father has now recovered, and relatives believe the plasma treatment saved him.
While plasma therapy is so far unproven in fighting coronavirus, small studies have found it successful against other infectious diseases including Ebola and SARS.
Zoraiz Riaz Syed, who runs the “Corona Recovered Warriors” group of former patients on Facebook, said it had helped connect more than 750 people to blood donors.
His group is “providing a central platform for the whole of Pakistan”, he said, adding that people trusted members of the community more than the country’s creaking health care system.
A senior health official overseeing the government’s clinical plasma trials said it was “near to impossible” for the government to stop unregulated transfusions.
Authorities are troubled by black-market sales, he said, where dealers promise the quick delivery of a bag of blood to critical patients for prices hitting $900.
The coronavirus Facebook group has booted several members out for trying to sell their plasma, illegal in Pakistan in line with World Health Organization guidelines.
Pakistan’s health ministry did not respond to requests for comment, but the government has set up a hotline for anyone forced into paying for plasma to file a complaint.
Freelance writer Amal Chaudhry said the plasma treatment her father underwent with the help of a donor she found on Facebook had so far proven successful.
“It all happened out of desperation,” she said.
Now recovered, her father has posted online that he is ready to donate his plasma to other virus victims.