Pakistan town struggles with surge in HIV infections

A medical worker draws blood for a HIV test at the free medical camp in Ratodero, Pakistan. (Reuters)
Updated 31 May 2019

Pakistan town struggles with surge in HIV infections

  • Health officials suspect the outbreak is linked to reused syringes and needles and improperly screened blood transfusions
  • Pakistan has some 163,000 HIV and AIDS patients

RATODERO, Pakistan: Doctors in a town in Pakistan are struggling to cope with a surge in patients infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, with nearly 700 cases since April, most of them children.
Health officials suspect the outbreak is linked to reused syringes and needles and improperly screened blood transfusions.
“For me it was impossible to imagine,” said Nazeer, recalling the day a doctor said his 16-month-old girl had tested positive for HIV.
“I told him ‘are you joking with me, how can she have HIV?’,” he said in his home in Ratodero, 480 km from Karachi, the capital of the southern province of Sindh.
His daughter is receiving treatment, he said, adding he did not know how she was infected.
Health officials say 681 people have tested positive for HIV in Ratodero, of whom 537 are children, since April 25.
More than 21,00 people have taken an HIV test at Ratodero’s only screening center in a government hospital. Others have been tested at private clinics.
“I have identified the tip of the iceberg. This could be in the thousands, not hundreds,” said Dr. Imran Akbar Arbani, who operates a clinic in the town in Lakarna district.
About 60 percent of Ratodero patients were infected by reused needles and syringes, or through transfusions of blood that were not screened properly for HIV, said Dr. Sikander Memon, head of the AIDS control program in the province.
Police and doctors conducted an initial investigation and found that 123 HIV patients had been treated by one doctor before they were infected.
Dr. Muzaffar Ghanghro was arrested on April 30 and has been charged with unintentional murder, police said.
“Negligence and carelessness of Dr. Muzaffar Ghanghro has been the prime reason behind the spread of HIV at the later stage,” the investigation team said in a report.
Reuters was not permitted to contact Ghangro in jail and was not able to contact his lawyer.
Imtiaz, a laborer, said he had taken his three children to Ghangro because there was no pediatrician in town. All three became infected with HIV.
“He applied the same drip on 50 children without changing the needle,” he said.
Pakistan has some 163,000 HIV and AIDS patients, of whom only 25,000 are registered with provincial and federal AIDS control programs, said Zafar Mirza, a health adviser to Prime Minister Imran Khan.
At Pakistan’s request, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have sent a team of experts to the area. They are expected to visit Ratodero on Friday.
“They will carry out a proper investigation into how this outbreak too place,” Mirza told reporters. “I hope in the coming few weeks we will know the reasons.”
The government has ordered 50,000 HIV screening kits and is setting up three treatment centers. Adult patients are receiving anti-retroviral drugs and medicines have been ordered for children, Mirza said.
The Ratodero cases underscore the dire state of health care in Pakistan, a nation of 208 million where almost a third of the population lives on less than $3.20 a day and where many people cannot afford expensive medical tests or drugs.
Few families can afford proper treatment for HIV, which usually involves regular trips to Karachi.
“I have sold all my valuables for treatment. Now I can’t afford to go Karachi for my children’s medicines every month,” said Tariq, who lives in a village near Ratodero.
Tariq, his wife and daughter are HIV positive, and a nephew tested positive this month. He does not know how they became infected.
“There are 16 HIV cases in our village alone. No one has come to see our plight,” he said.

‘Political reconciliation’ with Pakistan top priority: Afghan envoy Daudzai

Updated 09 July 2020

‘Political reconciliation’ with Pakistan top priority: Afghan envoy Daudzai

  • Pakistan played positive role in US-Taliban peace talks, says diplomat

PESHAWAR: Afghanistan’s newly appointed special envoy for Pakistan has had put “mending political relations” between the two estranged nations as one of his top priorities.

Mohammed Umer Daudzai, on Tuesday said that his primary focus would be to ensure lasting peace in Afghanistan and maintain strong ties with Pakistan, especially after Islamabad’s key role in the Afghan peace process earlier this year.

In an exclusive interview, the diplomat told Arab News: “Two areas have been identified to focus on with renewed vigor, such as lasting peace in Afghanistan and cementing Pak-Afghan bilateral ties in economic, social, political and other areas.”

In order to achieve these aims, he said, efforts would be intensified “to mend political relations” between the neighboring countries.

Pakistan and Afghanistan share a 2,600-kilometer porous border and have been at odds for years. Bonds between them have been particularly strained due to a deep mistrust and allegations of cross-border infiltration by militants.

Kabul has blamed Islamabad for harboring Taliban leaders after they were ousted from power in 2001. But Pakistan has denied the allegations and, instead, accused Kabul of providing refuge to anti-Pakistan militants – a claim rejected by Afghanistan.

Daudzai said his immediate priority would be to focus on “political reconciliation” between the two countries, especially in the backdrop of a historic peace agreement signed in February this year when Pakistan played a crucial role in facilitating a troop withdrawal deal between the US and the Taliban to end the decades-old Afghan conflict. “Afghanistan needs political reconciliation which the Afghan government has already been working on to achieve bottom-up harmony,” he added.

Daudzai’s appointment Monday by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani took place days after Islamabad chose Mohammed Sadiq as Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s special representative for Afghanistan.

Reiterating the need to maintain strong bilateral ties with all of its neighbors, Daudzai said Pakistan’s role was of paramount importance to Afghanistan.

“Pakistan has a positive role in the US-Taliban peace talks, and now Islamabad could play a highly significant role in the imminent intra-Afghan talks. I will explore all options for a level-playing field for the success of all these initiatives,” he said, referring in part to crucial peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban which were delayed due to a stalemate in a prisoner exchange program – a key condition of the Feb. 29 peace deal.

Under the agreement, up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners and around 1,000 government prisoners were to be freed by March 10. So far, Afghanistan has released 3,000 prisoners, while the Taliban have freed 500. Daudzai said that while dates had yet to be finalized, the intra-Afghan dialogue could begin “within weeks.”

He added: “A date for intra-Afghan talks hasn’t been identified yet because there is a stalemate on prisoners’ release. But I am sure they (the talks) will be kicked off within weeks.”

Experts say Daudzai’s appointment could give “fresh momentum” to the stalled process and revitalize ties between the two estranged neighbors.

“Mohammed Sadiq’s appointment...could lead Kabul-Islamabad to a close liaison and better coordination,” Irfanullah Khan, an MPhil scholar and expert on Afghan affairs, told Arab News.

Daudzai said that he would be visiting Islamabad to kickstart the process as soon as the coronavirus disease-related travel restrictions were eased.

Prior to being appointed as the special envoy, he had served as Afghanistan’s ambassador to Pakistan from April 2011 to August 2013.