Growing epidemic of HIV in Pakistan

HIV/AIDS is a growing epidemic in Pakistan. The first HIV/AIDS case was detected in 1986 and since then it has been on the increase. Pakistan was previously considered to be low-prevalence country but over the past decade cases are growing at an alarming rate as compared to other countries. The deaths from HIV/AIDS in the country increased from 350 in 2005 to 1,480 in 2015, reflecting an average increase of 14.42 percent a year. Despite efforts to control the epidemic and being one of the Millennium Development Goals to be achieved by 2015, things are moving in the opposite direction for Pakistan. It is wake-up call for those at the helm of affairs to devise policies to stop its spread before it is too late.

The epidemic is considered more than a health issue because 36.7 million people worldwide are on the verge of extinction. Globally, 35 million have already died of HIV/AIDS. There is a stigma attached to HIV/AIDS in Pakistan. According to a study conducted by an International Consortium of Researchers, led by Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, deaths from HIV/AIDS declined worldwide at a rate of 1.5 percent between 2000 and 2013. In Pakistan, however, the death rate, as indicated above, is on the increase. The rise in the rate of the epidemic when the rest of the world is successfully overcoming it, must be a matter of great concern for all of us.

There are various risk factors which contribute to this rising trends of the HIV/AIDS in Pakistan. Firstly, outbreaks of the epidemic among the injecting drug users. The number of drug users is increasing in the country with the each passing day and they can be spotted with quite an ease in almost every town and city. These drug users are a constant threat and contribute heavily in spreading it.

Inadequate blood transfusion screening is  one of the main reasons responsible for its spread. It is estimated that about 40 percent of the annual blood transfusions in Pakistan are not screened for HIV. Interestingly, about 20 percent of the blood transfused comes from the professional donors, who give blood in return for money.

There are large number of migrants and refugees in the country. Large numbers of the workers leave their villages to seek employment in large cities and most of them live in the industrial sites. They stay away from their homes for an extended period of time, exposing them to unprotected sex. Such workers are therefore at risk of HIV.

Practice of unsafe medical injections is rampant in the country. Pakistan undoubtedly has a high rate of medical injections. The studies reveal that the majority of the injections are administered with used injection equipment. Use of unsterilised needles at medical facilities need to be checked. According to WHO estimates, unsafe injections account for 62 percent of Hepatitis B, 84 percent of Hepatitis C and 3 percent of HIV cases in the country.

Illiteracy and backwardness further complicate the situation. All efforts aimed at creating awareness among the population are hampered by illiteracy. Educating people will help a great deal in overcoming the epidemic. Lastly, the people belonging to low strata of the society in terms of social and economic positions are vulnerable to HIV. This can be verified from the fact that its prevalence is higher in the socially and economically marginalised sections of society. The government must make its social safety nets more effective by bringing the poorest of the poor into the very fold of the safety nets.

Though HIV is not a dominant epidemic at present in Pakistan, keeping in view ever increasing number of the cases it may pose serious challenges in the days to come. According to UN reports, there has been an eight-fold increase in HIV cases between 2001 and 2012. More than 130,000 people are infected with HIV in Pakistan and only 7,819 are registered in different centres and of them, merely 3,700 have access to treatment.

Keeping in view the above-mentioned facts, there is a dire need for the government to come up with an over-arching policy to protect future generations from this deadly disease. Since there is no vaccine or definite cure of HIV and AIDS, prevention is the only way. Given the stigma attached with the disease, the government should leave no stone unturned to make early treatment accessible to those who test positive. This early treatment will enable those infected with the disease to live longer and healthier lives, and for this the government, religious groups, civil society and media should work in tandem. The sooner, the better.

Muhammad Shahid Rafique