Pakistan HIV
Pakistani paramedics take blood samples from children for HIV tests at a state-run hospital in Rato Dero in the district of Larkana of the southern Sindh province. Image Credit: AFP

Islamabad: An international team of experts from the World Health Organisation (WHO) arrived in Pakistan on Tuesday to investigate the outbreak of HIV in Larkana in Sindh province. The emergency visit was requested by Pakistan’s Ministry of Health after official reports confirmed that nearly 700 people had been testing positive for HIV, which includes 576 children. The figures are expected to rise to 1,000 as screenings continue.

Dr Masood Solangi, Director General Health Sindh, received the WHO team in Karachi. The team of around 10 experts will visit the affected areas and conduct a “proper investigation” along with local doctors and health department officials. The key tasks for the WHO-led team will include determining the source of the outbreak and controlling it, providing technical expertise, particularly in the areas of HIV testing, paediatric HIV treatment and family counselling; and ensuring adequate supplies of rapid diagnostic tests and antiretroviral medicines for both adults and children, as well as single-use needles and syringes, according to the spokesperson.

The WHO mission included experts in emergency response management, epidemiology, HIV clinical care, and infection prevention and control from WHO staff as well as the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network (GOARN).

Recent virus outbreak traced to a doctor in Larkana

The recent epidemic was first reported in the last week of April after 18 children from a town on the outskirts of Larkana city tested positive for the virus. Officials have traced the outbreak to a doctor, Dr Muzaffar Ghangharo, himself an Aids patient, who allegedly used a contaminated syringe on several patients that led to recent alarming spike in HIV-positive cases. Police later arrested the doctor.

Health Ministry announces measures to combat epidemic

As of now “681 people have tested positive for HIV and 537 are between the ages of two to 15. Some are even less than two years old,” said Dr Zafar Mirza, special assistant to the prime minister on National Health Services. Explaining the possible reasons for the HIV outbreak in young children, he said, “The recent spread of HIV/Aids among children was either caused by unsafe injections or through unscreened blood transfusions or by a reason that was not yet known.”

Health officials have ordered 50,000 more HIV test kits to screen all possible patients, new medicines and three more HIV treatment centres were also being planned in Mirpurkhas, Nawabshah and Hyderabad. So far, 21,375 persons had been tested in Ratodero, Larkana. Dr Mirza said that the federal and provincial government are jointly working on the matter since the start of the HIV outbreak.

HIV epidemic in Pakistan

With an estimated 20,000 new infections each year, Pakistan has one of the worst HIV infection rates in South Asia. According to UNAids, only 10% of country’s 150,000 HIV patients have the facility of life-saving drugs. Doctors in Pakistan blame repeated use of syringe needles, shaving blades and contaminated blood transfusions for the spread of virus. Experts suggest that poverty and illiteracy are the major reasons that fake doctors often dupe people. Infection rates are highest among sex workers and drug users, officials say.

Key Facts

• Pakistan has one of the worst HIV infection rates in South Asia with an estimated 20,000 new infections each year.

• Only 16 per cent of the estimated number of people living with HIV had been tested. Around 80% do not know their HIV status and are likely to transmit the virus to their partner(s) and even to their unborn babies.

• Most of those infected with HIV come to the clinic when they are already sick and medical services become more expensive.

• Stigma, discrimination and lack of awareness prevent HIV testing.

Difference between HIV and Aids

HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is a virus that damages the cells in immune system and weakens ability to fight everyday disease. Aids (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) is a chronic, potentially life-threatening condition that happen when immune system has been severely damaged by the HIV virus. While Aids can’t be transmitted, the HIV virus can. There’s currently no cure for HIV, but with an early diagnosis and effective treatment, most people with the virus can live a long and healthy life.