HYDERABAD: Prison authorities in Sindh province have started Pakistan’s first mass coronavirus disease (COVID-19) screening program which, they believe, will help head off any potential outbreaks in an environment where physical distancing is difficult.
Detention facilities in the province are currently overfilled, with more than 17,600 people incarcerated in 24 prisons built to accommodate 13,000. Half of Sindh’s prison population is housed in two jails in Karachi. In June officials at one of them — Karachi Central Jail — said a quarter of the prisoners there had tested positive for COVID-19.
“This is a big problem for us. They are hugely overcrowded, and it’s very difficult to manage them,” Kazi Nazeer Ahmed, the inspector general of prison police in Sindh, told Arab News.
“We were a bit worried that COVID-19 might spread like wildfire in such a situation,” said Dr. Rafiq Khanani, president of the Infectious Disease Society of Pakistan, who oversees the country’s testing programs.
As inmates are a highly vulnerable group, he said, antibody tests were being conducted to determine their exposure to the virus. “In any public health situation, it’s checked how many people are getting exposed to a virus or disease and how many of them acquire immunity,” Khanani added. “Those who have developed antibodies, he added, are immune and “they are unlikely to get the disease within the next
The information will allow prison authorities to determine which prisoners are safe to interact with people. “Similarly, staff that have been exposed and (are) immune can be put on the task of dealing with (infected) people. If one is vulnerable, he cannot be put on those tasks,” Khanani said.
But not every inmate will be tested. “We have determined the sample size for each prison, and we are not testing everybody, but we are testing according to the size that is required for extrapolation of data,” the doctor explained.
The program is already underway in Karachi, and on Thursday kicked off at Hyderabad Central Jail with a briefing for prison police and health staff on how to conduct tests and prevent infection.
“There were many things regarding the virus which worried us. But after attending this session, many things were made clear,” said Dr. Adeel Shehzad Memon, a senior medical officer at the prison, which is the province’s second-largest.
Dr. Arfana Khan, medical chief of Hyderabad’s women’s prison, said the tests would not only help protect the physical health of inmates, but also ease their anxiety.
“A member of staff can go outside and get tested; the inmates cannot. COVID-19 has not only affected them physically but also tortured them mentally,” she said.
The month-long mass testing and training program, which will cover all penitentiaries in Sindh, is run in collaboration with Nawan Laboratories, Advanced Lab, and French epidemic control experts Z&Z Consultants.
“This is the first time in Asia and the first time in Pakistan that this sort of program has taken place,” said Ehsan Naseer Awan, managing director of Nawan Laboratories.
“Reports will be shared with prison authorities across the country,” he said. “I hope other provinces will learn from us and act upon it.”