In July 2016, a report was presented at an international Aids conference held in Durban, South Africa. The report, which consisted of the findings of the meta-analysis coordinated by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington in Seattle, USA, should have rung alarm bells but it went largely unnoticed. It suggested that the prevalence of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and the deaths due to the infectious disease have been growing alarmingly in Pakistan as compared to other countries of the world over the past decade. The number of new HIV infections in Pakistan grew at an average of 17.6 percent per year between 2005 and 2015, making it the highest increase in the world. The results of the study question the efficacy of government policies to control the disease that has remained flawed, donor-driven and intermittent.
In May 2016, Minister for National Health Services, Regulations and Coordination Saira Afzal Tarar told the Senate of Pakistan that “nearly 100,000 people in the country are living with HIV/AIDS, but only 15,370 are registered with 21 HIV treatment centres.” According to USAID estimates, there are 94,000 individuals in Pakistan living with HIV, the second largest number in South Asia. Officially reported cases are, however, much lower. As in many countries, under-reporting is due mainly to the social stigma attached to HIV, limited surveillance and voluntary counselling and testing systems, and a lack of knowledge among the general population and health practitioners.
First HIV/AIDS case was detected in 1986 and since then, this deadly epidemic has been on the rise in the country. There was a time when Pakistan was considered a low-prevalence country but over the past decade, the number of HIV-affected people has grown alarmingly. The deaths from HIV/AIDS in the country increased from 350 in 2005 to 1480 in 2015 showing an average increase of 14.42 percent a year. Despite ‘strenuous’ efforts to control the epidemic and by virtue of it being one of the Millennium Development Goals, which were to be achieved by 2015, things have moved in opposite direction for Pakistan. The spread of this disease should be a wake-up call for those at the helm of affairs as they need to come out of the deep slumber, they have been in since long, and draw up policies to stop it before it is too late.
This epidemic is considered more than a health issue because, as per the latest data available, nearly 36.7 million people worldwide are at death’s door. Globally, more than 35 million HIV victims have already died.
There is stigma attached with HIV/AIDS affectees in Pakistan, and this makes their life miserable. According to a study conducted by an International Consortium of Researchers, deaths from HIV/AIDS declined worldwide at a rate of 1.5 percent between 2000 and 2013. In Pakistan, however, the death rate is rising. The growing number of HIV patients, when the world is successfully overcoming it, must be a matter of great concern.
There are various risk factors which contribute to the rise of HIV/AIDS in Pakistan. First of all, the country is facing a concentrated epidemic among injecting drug users (IDUs) with HIV prevalence of 21 percent among them in major urban centres across the country. The number of drug-users has been rising with each passing day and they can be spotted with quite an ease in almost every town and city of the country. These drug-users are a constant threat as they are contributing heavily to the spread of AIDS.
Secondly, inadequate blood transfusion screening is another main reason responsible for the spread of AIDS. As per a World Bank report, an estimated 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 for money.
Thirdly, there are migrants and refugees present in the country in large numbers. Workers also leave their villages to seek employment in big cities and most of them stay away from their homes for an extended period of time and it makes them exposed to unprotected sex. Such workers are at a high risk of contracting HIV/AIDS.
Fourthly, practice of unsafe medical injections is rampant in the country. Pakistan undoubtedly has high rate of medical injections. The studies reveal that majority of the injections are administered with used injection equipment. Use of unsterilized needles at medical facilities needs to be checked. According to WHO estimates, unsafe injections account for 62% percent of Hepatitis B, 84 percent of Hepatitis C and nearly 3 percent of HIV cases in the country.
Prevalent illiteracy and rampant backwardness in Pakistan are further aggravating the already precarious situation. All efforts on creating awareness among the masses get hampered because owing to high illiteracy rates, most people fail to understand the risks this disease carries. Educating the common people will surely help a great deal in overcoming this epidemic.
People who, in terms of social and economic status, belong to lower stratum of our society, are most vulnerable to HIV/AIDS. This can be verified from the fact that its prevalence is higher in the socially- and economically-marginalized sections of the Pakistani 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.
Although HIV/AIDS is not a dominant epidemic, at present, in Pakistan, yet keeping in view the ever-increasing number of the cases, it may present serious challenges to the state and its machinery in the days to come.
Keeping in view the abovementioned facts, there is a dire, pressing and urgent need that the government comes up with an overarching policy to protect future generations from this deadliest of diseases. Since there is no vaccine or definite cure for AIDS, prevention is the only way to eliminate it from our country. Given the stigma attached with the disease, the government must put in all-out efforts to make early treatment accessible to those who are tested positive. This will enable them to live longer and healthier lives, and for this the government, religious scholars, civil society and media should work in tandem. The sooner, the better.