KARACHI: A team of experts from the World Health Organization (WHO) were expected to arrive in Karachi on Tuesday to probe reasons for a major HIV outbreak in the southern Sindh province of Pakistan, a senior official told Arab News.
The visit follows official reports which placed the number of people testing positive for HIV at 700, with figures expected to increase to 1,000, even as screening for the condition remains on track.
Authorities were first alerted of the burgeoning crisis after 18 children – mostly from a town on the outskirts of Larkana city – tested positive for the virus in the last week of April.
Officials have traced the spread of the virus to a paediatrician in Sindh province, named Muzaffar Ghangharo, who allegedly used a contaminated syringe on several patients. “He has been arrested and a Joint Investigation Team (JIT) interrogating him is expected to submit its report by Thursday,” Kamran Nawaz, a senior police officer and head of the JIT, told Arab News on Monday, adding that it’s yet to be ascertained whether the act was done on purpose.
However, a health official told Arab News that the WHO team would be able to ascertain the actual reasons for the outbreak.
“A ten-member team, comprising experts from three different countries including USA – scheduled to reach Karachi today – will test the virus to identify the causes of the outbreak,” Dr. Abdul Baseer Achakzai, manager of the Pakistan’s National AIDs Control Program (NACP) said.
“Previously, unsafe sex and blood transfusion had been the major causes of HIV infection in Pakistan,” Achakzai said, adding that the virus had spread in Ratodero over the past several years, but it was only last month – after several children were tested for the condition – that the issue was brought to light.
“We will get the true cause and decide a strategy accordingly after the expert team’s examination,” Achakzai said, adding that officials estimated that nearly 60,000 had been infected by the virus in Sindh alone.
While the provincial government has faced a lot of flak for its inaction, Sindh’s Information Minister Murataza Wahab said the findings are factually incorrect.
“It is not factually correct that the outbreak is only in Sindh. The HIV issue is prevalent all over the country and there needs to be a concerted [effort] at the center, taking all provinces on board,” Wahab told Arab News, adding that the province has done considerable work to limit the spread of the disease, including passing a number of legislations.
“The immediate response was to conduct blood screening to ascertain the situation and then make a strategy of countering the virus and helping the patients. All immediate steps have been taken,” he said.
He added that the Sindh government will be establishing an endowment fund to take care of the financial needs of the infected patients on a permanent basis, too.
Earlier on May 25, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the chairman of Sindh’s ruling party had visited the area to take stock of the situation, following which he presided over several meetings for the same.
“HIV is not a death sentence. The conflation of HIV and AIDS is fueling stigmatization of the most vulnerable people in Pakistan. This cannot and should not be tolerated. I stand by my fellow Pakistanis who have contracted HIV, be they in Ratodero, Swabi, Sargodha or Turbat,” Bilawal had tweeted after his visit to a treatment center in Ratodero.
“From the Sindh HIV and AIDS Control and Prevention Bill 2013 to the free distribution of contraceptives, Sindh has and will continue to pass and enact the most progressive legislation and programs to protect the most vulnerable,” he continued.
The outbreak has, however, created a sense of panic among people in the area, with several choosing not to interact with those infected by the virus. Authorities, for their part, said they are engaging with groups to do away with misconceptions about the disease.
“HIV and AIDS are two different entities, if some one is HIV positive he can be treated so that he can not develop AIDS,” Dr. Masood Solangi, head of the Sindh AIDs control program told Arab News.
“HIV is not spread by living together, eating together, its route of transmission is unsafe sex and contaminated injections,” he said, adding that his team is working by the hour to spread awareness among the affected communities. “The Health Department has curtailed the outbreak and it is now limited to Ratodero,” Solangi said.
With a majority of those infected being children, Solangi said they have controlled the source of the spread by cracking down on illegal medical practitioners. “We have sealed more than 800 clinics of quacks. We have established special treatment centers in Larkana for children so that they do not have to travel to Karachi for treatment,” he said.
There is no cure for HIV, but antiretroviral treatment can help in limiting the spread of the virus. If left untreated, it can lead to AIDS. The increase in the number of new cases reported in Pakistan is in contrast to a global decline, especially since the country of 208 million is considered a low prevalence nation for HIV.