Friday June 14, 2024

Sindh launches ‘oral medicine programme’ to prevent new HIV infections

By M. Waqar Bhatti
June 08, 2022

KARACHI: At a time when Pakistan is witnessing a staggering increase in the number of new HIV infections, Sindh became the first province to officially launch an oral medicine program known as Pre-exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) to prevent people from the ‘high risk populations’ from contracting HIV infections, officials said on Tuesday.

“Amid a rise in new HIV infections, we are officially launching in Sindh the Pre-exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) Program to prevent people from high risk populations from becoming HIV positive. Sindh has always taken a lead in taking early decisions in the area of health and this step would definitely be followed by others,” Director General Health Sindh Dr Jumman Bahoto said while speaking at the launching ceremony of PrEP program in Karachi.

Health experts said according to research, when taken daily as directed, oral medicines called PrEP can reduce the risk of HIV infections by more than 90 percent.

UNAIDS Country Director Pakistan and Afghanistan Ms Yuki Takemoto, Additional Director CDC Sindh Dr Ershad Kazmi, Ms Heather Doyle, Programme Manager for the HIV Global Fund grant at UNDP, Dr Rajwal Khan, Strategic Information Adviser, UNAIDS Pakistan and Afghanistan, Fahmida Khan from UNAIDS, WHO’s country representative to Pakistan Dr Sara Salman and other officials were also present.

Terming the launch of PrEP as a ‘game changer’ in the prevention of HIV, Dr. Jumman Bahoto said even though it has been more than 10 years since the first evidence of the efficacy of daily oral pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) was published, much of the PrEP scale-up is still highly concentrated in a small number of countries.

“Sindh health department in partnership with the United Nations in Pakistan has set a precedent in the country today by launching community-based- PrEP for key populations and sero-discordant couples. PrEP offers an additional HIV prevention choice along with other preventive measures”, he said maintaining that following the launch event, training will be held with ART Centre staff from around the Sindh province on ensuring effective and evidence-based PrEP services.

Dr Ershad Kazmi, Additional Director, CDC Sindh, said Pakistan has seen an increase of 84pc in new HIV infections between 2010 and 2020 and unless bold steps are taken today, new HIV infections cannot be stopped. “PrEP is a step in the right direction because it offers a significant strategic opportunity to precision target prevention programs for key populations. For administering PrEP to sero-discordant couples and key populations, formal linkages have been established between ART Centres and the outreach component of the current program,” he said.

Ms Yuki Takemoto, UNAIDS Country Director Pakistan and Afghanistan, congratulated the Sindh health department for formally launching the PrEP program and added that they were impressed by the political commitment and concrete actions by the government to address the needs of communities.

“Ensuring a supportive, enabling environment free from stigma and discrimination will help achieve the targets of the Sindh AIDS Strategy 2021-2025 and contribute effectively towards ending AIDS as a public health threat by 2030,” she said adding that community outreach workers and counselors have the advantage of being able to reach key populations including hard-to-reach communities.

She added that the integration of community-led HIV prevention programs and meaningful participation of communities are critical to ensure that policies and services are responsive to community needs.

UNDP official Ms Heather Doyle said they were working closely with Sindh CDC, UNAIDS and the community partners to push this initiative forward. “We look forward to continuing that partnership so that everyone who needs PrEP has access”, she added.

Several members from the community-based organizations and representatives from key populations participated in the launch and expressed hope that chances of new HIV infections will get reduced through PrEP uptake.

One community representative said, “Since we don’t have vaccination for HIV as we have for COVID 19, PrEP is a gift of medical science to the communities that can help prevent HIV among those who are at higher risk. While a vaccine or cure may one day end the HIV epidemic, PrEP is a powerful tool that has the potential to alter the course of the HIV epidemic in Pakistan in the coming years.”