HIV outbreak sparks panic in southern Pakistan

In this image taken on May 9, 2019, a Pakistani paramedic takes a blood sample from a baby for a HIV test at a state-run hospital in Rato Dero in the district of Larkana of the southern Sindh province. (AFP)
Updated 16 May 2019

HIV outbreak sparks panic in southern Pakistan

  • Health officials say more than 400 people, many of them children, have tested HIV positive
  • Anger and fear continue to swell in the desperately poor village hit hard by the epidemic

RATO DERO, Pakistan: Parents nervously watch as their children wait to be tested for HIV in a village in southern Pakistan, where hundreds of people have been allegedly infected by a doctor using a contaminated syringe.
Dispatched to keep order, police scan the anxious crowd as families hustle into one of five different screening rooms set up in the last month in the village of Wasayo, on the outskirts of Larkana in Sindh province.
Health officials say more than 400 people, many of them children, have tested HIV positive in recent weeks as experts warn of a surge in infection rates across Pakistan, due to the use of unsanitary equipment and rampant malpractice — often at the hands of quack doctors.
Anger and fear continue to swell in the desperately poor village hit hard by the epidemic, which authorities say could be linked to either gross negligence or malicious intent by a local pediatrician.




In this image taken on May 8, 2019, Pakistani women hold their HIV infected children as they gather at a house at Wasayo village in Rato Dero in the district of Larkana of the southern Sindh province. (AFP)


“They are coming by the dozens,” says a doctor at the makeshift clinic, beset by a lack of equipment and personnel to treat the surging number of patients.
Mukhtar Pervez waits anxiously to have her daughter tested, worrying a recent fever may be linked to the outbreak. For others, their worst fears have already become a reality.
Nisar Ahmed arrived at the clinic in a furious search for medicine after his one-year-old daughter tested positive three days earlier.
“I curse [the doctor] who has caused all these children to be infected,” he says angrily.
Nearby Imam Zadi accompanies five of her children to be examined after her grandson tested positive.
“The entire family is so upset,” she tells AFP.
Others worry their children’s futures have been irreparably harmed after contracting HIV, especially in a country whose masses of rural poor have little understanding of the disease or access to treatment.
“Who is she going to play with? And when she’s grown up, who would want to marry her?” asks a tearful mother from a nearby village, who asked not to named, of her four-year-old daughter who just tested positive.




In this image taken on May 8, 2019, a Pakistani paramedic takes a blood sample from a woman for a HIV test at a state-run hospital in Rato Dero in the district of Larkana of the southern Sindh province. (AFP)

Pakistan was long considered a low prevalence country for HIV, but the disease is expanding at an alarming rate, particularly among intravenous drug users and sex workers.
With about 20,000 new HIV infections reported in 2017 alone, Pakistan currently has the second fastest growing HIV rates across Asia, according to the UN.
Pakistan’s surging population also suffers the additional burden of having insufficient access to quality health care following decades of under-investment by the state, leaving impoverished, rural communities especially vulnerable to unqualified medical practitioners.
“According to some government reports, around 600,000 quack doctors are operating across the country and around 270,000 are practicing in the province of Sindh,” said UNAIDS in a statement.
Provincial health officials have also noted that patients are at particular risk of contracting diseases or viruses at these clinics, where injections are often pushed as a primary treatment option.
“For the sake of saving money, these quacks will inject multiple patients with a single syringe. This could be the main cause of the spread of HIV cases,” said Sikandar Memon, provincial program manager of the Sindh Aids Control Programme.
The large number of unqualified doctors along with the “reuse of syringes, unsafe blood transfusions, and other unsafe medical practices” have all led to the spike in HIV cases in recent years, explains Bushra Jamil, an expert on infectious diseases at the Aga Khan University in Karachi.
“Rampant medical malpractices without any effective checks and balances are causing repeated outbreaks in Pakistan,” said Jamil.
Authorities investigating the outbreak in Sindh say the accused doctor has also tested positive for HIV.
From a ramshackle jail cell in the nearby city of Ratodero, he denied the charges and accusations he knowingly injected his patients with the virus, while complaining of being incarcerated with common criminals.
But for the parents of the newly diagnosed, the ongoing investigation means little if they are unable to secure access to better information and the necessary drugs that can help stave off the deadly AIDS virus.
“We are helpless. I have other children and I am afraid they might catch the disease,” says another mother whose daughter recently tested positive for HIV.
“[Please] send some medicine for our children so that they can be cured. If not, all of our children will die, right?“


EU safety agency suspends Pakistani airlines’ European authorization

Updated 01 July 2020

EU safety agency suspends Pakistani airlines’ European authorization

  • The step has been taken due to concerns about the country’s ability to ensure compliance with international aviation standards
  • PIA expects the ‘earliest possible’ lifting of suspension after action by the government and the airline

ISLAMABAD: The European Union Air Safety Agency (EASA) has suspended Pakistan International Airlines’ (PIA) authorization to fly to the bloc for six months, the airline said on Tuesday, in a major blow to the country’s flag carrier.
Separately, the safety agency said it took the action due to concerns about the country’s ability to ensure compliance with international aviation standards at all times.
The suspension follows Pakistan’s grounding of 262 of the country’s 860 pilots — including 141 of PIA’s 434 — whose licenses the aviation minister termed “dubious.”
“EASA has temporarily suspended PIA’s authorization to operate to the EU member states for a period of six months effective July 1, 2020 with the right to appeal,” PIA said in a statement. It added it would temporarily discontinue all its flights to Europe.
Confirming the move in an emailed statement, the EASA referred to a recent investigation by Pakistan which it said showed a “large share” of pilot licenses to be invalid.
Pakistan’s grounding of the pilots followed a preliminary report on a PIA crash in Karachi that killed 97 people last month.
PIA said it is in contact with the EASA to take corrective measures and appeal against the decision, adding that it expected the “earliest possible” lifting of the suspension after action by the government and the airline.
The EASA also suspended the authorization of another Pakistani airline, Vision Air International.
Vision Air International did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.
Following the EASA’s decision, the UK Civil Aviation Authority said it, too, was withdrawing PIA’s permit to operate from three of its airports, as required under law.
“PIA flights from Birmingham, London Heathrow and Manchester airports are suspended with immediate effect,” a spokesman for the UK authority told Reuters.
The three were major flying destinations for the airline.
Meanwhile, Pakistani pilots and their union, the Pakistan Airlines Pilots Association (PALPA), say there are discrepancies in the government’s list of pilots with licenses deemed dubious and are demanding a judicial investigation.
PIA and private airline Air Blue have also queried the list with PIA saying 36 of its pilots mentioned had either retired or left the airline, while Air Blue said it no longer employed seven of nine pilots on the list.
“It contains names of highly educated and qualified pilots who have passed all the tests,” PALPA’s president, Chaudhry Salman, told Reuters. “We want a fair and impartial resolution to this matter.”
An official at Pakistan’s aviation ministry, Abdul Sattar Khokhar, said they did not have full details of the discrepancies. “The issue is being sorted out in consultation with airlines and civil aviation authorities.”