WHO team set to arrive in Pakistan after 700 test positive for HIV in Sindh

Health officials say more than 600people, many of them children, have tested HIV positive in recent weeks as experts warn of a surge in infection rates across Pakistan. (AFP)
Updated 11 June 2019

WHO team set to arrive in Pakistan after 700 test positive for HIV in Sindh

  • Officials say number of infected people, mostly children, likely to increase to thousands as screening continues
  • Information Minister rubbishes claims that the issue is limited to the province

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.

According to the Sindh AIDS Control Program, more than 21,872 people were screened for the virus – between April 25, 2019 and May 27, 2019 – using the Rapid Diagnostic Test, of which 700 have tested positive for the condition. Of these 700 cases from Ratodero, 354 (50.6%) are identified as male and 346 (49.4%) as female. (Source  SACP).

“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.

According to the Sindh AIDS Control Program, more than 21,872 people were screened for the virus – between April 25, 2019 and May 27, 2019 – using the Rapid Diagnostic Test, of which 700 have tested positive for the condition. Authorities say the number is expected to rise to 1,000 with screening underway. (Source SACP)

“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.

According to the Sindh AIDS Control Program, more than 21,872 people were screened for the virus – between April 25, 2019 and May 27, 2019 – using the Rapid Diagnostic Test, of which 700 have tested positive for the condition. The group that is most impacted is between 2-5 years of age with 395 (56.4%) cases reported, followed by children in the age group of 6-15 years with 128 (18.3%) cases.

“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.

Thumbs-up: Pakistani woman defies risks to hitchhike across the country

Updated 14 September 2020

Thumbs-up: Pakistani woman defies risks to hitchhike across the country

  • Leaving corporate security behind, Maria Soomro has traveled solo around the country since the pandemic began
  • She documents her travels and uses YouTube and Instagram to provide tips on how to solo travel as a woman

RAWALPINDI: A few months ago, while doing a stable job in the banking sector, Maria Soomro decided to act on her gut instinct and leave behind the monotony and routine of her daily life to follow her dream of hitchhiking around Pakistan. 

30-year-old Soomro hails from Karachi and has been working in the banking sector since completing her university education. The corporate job gave her 40 days of annual leave which she utilized for travel, though she felt that something was missing. 

“I wasn’t fully able to immerse myself in enjoyment or the experience,” she told Arab News over the phone while traveling through Gilgit-Baltistan. “When I travel, I go to remote villages, off-the-beaten-path type places and get to know the locals, actually spend some time understanding where I am and who I am surrounded by. Five or 15 days don’t allow for that.” 

The idea of spending time doing what she loved as opposed to sitting at a desk kicked Soomro into high-gear. “I opted to turn the documenting of my travels, which I had been doing since 2015 on Instagram (@MariaSoomro_) and eponymous YouTube channel, into my full-time job.” 

Maria Soomro smiles for the camera in a ride she hitched near Burzil Pass, part of the historic caravan route between Srinagar and Gilgit on her Instagram page on September 11, 2020. (Picture courtesy of Maria Soomro) 

In March of this year, Soomro headed out on her hitchhiking journey. Being a solo female traveler in Pakistan is a steadily growing trend, though a woman who hitchhikes is almost unheard of.

 “Budget traveling is my focus. The largest chunk of your budget ends up being spent on accommodation and transportation, and both of these things can be covered when you’re hitchhiking,” said Soomro. 

But her travel ethos is another reason hitchhiking was so attractive. To her, there is no better way than this to know the places one is traveling through. 

“This is a shortcut to get to know local communities, be it Pakistan or another country. When you ask for a lift, you get a special introduction to their home, their points of view, and you learn from them,” she said, adding that one can build contacts as a bonus who can be assets to solo travelers. 

Soomro estimates that her hitchhiking adventure has allowed her to meet over 300 people, all of whom, she maintains, contact through social media. “The more people you meet the more stories you hear and the more people you can share your own story with,” said she. 

Maria Soomro shares tips and tricks on solo travel including how to keep one's tent from blowing away in a shot she shares from Golden Beach, Balochistan, on her Instagram page on June 14, 2020. (Picture courtesy of Maria Soomro) 

Instead of merely asking for a lift, Soomro has taken each ride as an opportunity to educate on what hitchhiking is, why she is doing it, and why she is traveling Pakistan. 

“It’s not very common here and I want to change that. The general consensus is that Pakistan is not safe, in particular for women, to travel alone.” 

When asked about how safe she has felt while traveling, Soomro said she follows “her gut instinct, assessing each ride” but also stressed the importance of “being prepared,” such as carrying personal protection equipment like pepper spray and knife. 

“My advice to Pakistanis who want to follow into my footsteps would be to take time to understand this kind of travel first and do not go straight for hitching,” she said. “Travel in groups and learn the areas you want to visit, know how roads work and, like any other passion, take time to educate yourself.” 

Soomro is doing her part in educating travel hopefuls on her YouTube channel and Instagram page with tips on how to hitchhike, where to go, and how to pitch a tent to withstand winds and what type of rides to expect around the country at present. 

“There are very few people who follow their passion in the world, and I am one of those crazy people since I thought I could do it,” said Soomro. “I am a free bird and travel is a part of me. I can’t imagine my life without this.”