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June 16, 2019

HIV in Punjab


June 16, 2019

After the HIV panic that struck Rato Dero in the Larkana district of Sindh, with 751 persons including 600 children testing positive, Punjab has owned up to a major HIV problem of its own. In five districts, Faisalabad, Chiniot, Sahiwal, Jhang and Nankana Sahib, there are currently more than 2,800 patients registered with the Punjab AIDS Control Programme. There could of course be other sufferers who have not been detected or have not registered for free medication. Indeed, this is likely given that most discovered their condition accidentally, in screening before donating blood, undergoing a surgery or travelling overseas.

While the authorities have denied the surge in HIV cases, there are also other concerns. One of these is the reportedly routine refusal by public-sector hospitals to perform surgery on HIV-infected patients. As a result, these persons turn to dubious private clinics or quacks who use equipment that may not later undergo proper sterilisation, thereby contributing to the spread of the disease. As has been the case in Sindh, health sources also believe quacks are a major cause behind the spread of the virus as are unregistered doctors who use unsafe equipment.

This is obviously an emergency. The WHO had already declared a level two emergency in Sindh and will be releasing its report on the situation early next year. The organisation has said that $1.5 million is needed to tackle the epidemic. While it cannot generate the full amount, it will be making some payment towards tackling HIV in Sindh. The organisation also warns that Pakistan is now registering nearly 20,000 new HIV cases annually. This is the highest figure in the region. It will do no good to try and cover up the truth. All medical bodies and health officials need in fact to make it more public so that people can adopt necessary safeguards. It is essential that awareness and knowledge be spread to do away with myths and misperceptions. Today, drugs to combat AIDS are available in markets. Too few in Pakistan know about them or have access to them. Such ignorance can contribute only to an even more rapid growth in infection. The government needs to adopt a more transparent and more aggressive approach to prevent an even bigger crisis from taking hold across the country.

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