World AIDS Day, held on December 1 every year, serves as a grim reminder of Pakistan’s status as one of the few countries in the world experiencing a rapid rise in new HIV cases. UNAIDS data shows that the number of people living with HIV/AIDS in Pakistan has risen from 75,000 in 2010 to 270,000 in 2022, including around 6700 children aged 14 and under.
Deaths due to HIV/AIDS have risen from 2000 to 12000 within the same period. Experts say one of the major factors fuelling this alarming surge in HIV/AIDS cases and deaths is the fact that approximately 80 per cent of those with HIV are unaware that they have contracted the disease, increasing the risk of transmission. Even among those who know their status, many are not receiving the lifesaving treatment that is available, with around 34,368 patients on antiretroviral therapy out of the approximately 56,268 patients who know their HIV status. Ignorance, as with so many of the other health issues plaguing Pakistan, appears to be our biggest obstacle when it comes to combating HIV/AIDS. This is, arguably, unsurprising in a country where a proper education is a luxury and approximately 40 per cent of the population is illiterate.
This creates a situation where Pakistanis are at an increasing risk from diseases that most other countries are gradually reducing their exposure to. Our status as one of the few countries experiencing a surge in HIV/AIDS bears an uncanny similarity to our position as one of the two countries in the world, alongside neighbouring Afghanistan, where polio is still endemic. The tragedy in both cases is that our people are suffering needlessly, with medical treatments and other measures available that could prevent or at least lessen their pain. In the case of HIV/AIDS the world has benefited from greater access to treatment, more testing, and more education to attain a 38 per cent decline in new HIV infections since 2010. These are all factors that a lack of education and an under-equipped healthcare network have prevented us from benefiting from.
While targeted awareness campaigns among drug users and other populations most at risk of contracting HIV/AIDS will indeed help to reduce HIV transmission and help more people become aware of their status and access treatment, defeating this disease on a permanent basis will require broader measures. All Pakistanis need to know about HIV/AIDS and how they can keep themselves safe from the disease as early on in their lives as possible. This will require overcoming long-standing taboos on discussing issues related to sex and drug use openly and destigmatizing HIV/AIDS in order to encourage more people to acknowledge their status and receive the treatment they need.
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