Officials Probe Alarming HIV Outbreak in Southern Pakistan

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2019-05-11

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ISLAMABAD —Officials in Pakistan and the United Nations are investigating causes of a new outbreak of HIV infections in a southern district where nearly 400 people have been diagnosed in less than two weeks. Officials confirmed Saturday that nearly 80% of those infected are children, with nearly half of them under age 5.

Local media began reporting about the epidemic two weeks ago from Larkana, a district of Sindh province, which has already experienced three outbreaks in recent years. A local doctor who treated several patients with a single needle and syringe was blamed for spreading the virus, which causes AIDS.

The provincial government rushed teams of public health workers to the district, with an estimated population of 1.5 million, to quickly assess the situation and mobilize resources to curtail further spread of HIV. More than 9,000 people have since been subjected to screening in the affected district, and the process is continuing, Sikandar Memon, the provincial head of the AIDS Control Program, told reporters.

A UNAIDS spokeswoman told VOA that international partners had joined local teams to help quickly carry out an outbreak investigation and address the acute needs of the people infected with HIV, including immediately linking them to treatment, care and support services.

The spokeswoman, Fahmida Khan, said efforts were being made to ensure that unsafe injection and blood transfusion practices were being stopped. She also noted that there were unconfirmed reports of similar HIV outbreaks in surrounding districts.

​Focus of problem

Sindh, with a population of nearly 48 million, accounts for 43% of an estimated 150,000 people living with HIV in Pakistan.

U.N. officials say since 2010, there has been a 57% increase in new HIV/AIDS infections in Pakistan. They noted that among all identified HIV cases in Pakistan, 43,000 are females.

Last year, an estimated 20,000 people were newly identified with HIV in Pakistan and 6,200 people died of AIDS, according to local and U.N. officials.

Khan would not comment on the reasons for the high number of HIV infections among children and the potential causes of the latest outbreak in Larkana, saying "further investigations and epidemiological review is yet required and suggested."

Provincial authorities also have launched a high-level investigation to ascertain the veracity of the allegations against the local doctor, who already has been taken into police custody.

Some also blame unsafe injection practices by quack doctors for contributing to the spread of HIV. Government officials estimate about 600,000 unqualified doctors are unlawfully operating in Pakistan and 270,000 of them are practicing in Sindh.

Critics also blame lapses in Pakistan's national health system, the low priority given to the problem, corruption, the recent abolition of the federal health ministry and the delegation of its functions to the provinces for the worsening health sector situation and the increase in HIV infections.

Pakistani and U.N. officials say the HIV epidemic in Pakistan remains largely concentrated among key populations, including people who inject drugs, the transgender community, sex workers and their clients, and men who have sex with men.