Physicians in Pakistan’s southwestern province of Balochistan say HIV infection rates are rapidly rising in the impoverished region reeling from violence and poor healthcare.
Despite a lack of extensive testing data, healthcare professionals have noted a rise in both HIV infection rates and cases of AIDS. The vast and sparsely populated region borders Iran and Afghanistan and has a long coast along the Arabian Sea.
Afzal Khan Zarkon, a physician, is provincial chief of the Aids Control Program. He says they are now leading an awareness campaign in Balochistan because many HIV-positive patients are not even aware they are infected.
If left untreated, HIV morphs into AIDS, a deadly disease that paralyzes the human immune system.
Zarkon estimates that more than 5,000 people among Balochistan’s 12 million residents are infected with HIV.
“Many of the infected people don’t even know their status. We have many high-risk districts,” he told Radio Mashaal. “We have 830 people registered in [the provincial capital] Quetta while another 309 are registered in Turbat [a district in the south].”
He added that Pishin, an agricultural district in Balochistan’s north, has some 60 HIV-positive cases while the northern districts of Zhob and Shirani also have a significant incidence of HIV.
HIV and AIDS are relatively new in Balochistan, which has witnessed large-scale violence because of attacks by separatists, Islamist militants, and military operations. Local media reports suggest that only two HIV patients were registered in 2016.
Amanullah Kakar, a health worker, says they are trying raise awareness about the importance of testing and reporting HIV because, unlike in cases of cancer or hepatitis, people with HIV in the conservative region are more likely to hide their condition due to the perceived stigma it carries.
“If someone is diagnosed early then the HIV infection can be prevented from turning into AIDS, and it can be contained,” Kakar told Radio Mashaal. “We are telling people to only trust blood transfusions that have been tested for HIV.”
Doctors in Pakistan blame repeated use of syringe needles, shaving blades, contaminated blood transfusions, and unhygienic dental work for the spread of HIV among the general population. Officials maintain that infection rates are highest among sex workers and drug users.
The UN estimates that the country of more than 207 million people currently has 150,000 HIV cases. More than 6,000 people are thought to have died of AIDS so far in the predominantly Muslim country.
With an estimated 20,000 new infections each year, Pakistan has one of the worst HIV infection rates in South Asia.
Meanwhile, authorities in the southern province of Sindh have arrested a doctor after dozens of people, including at least 75 children, were found to be infected with HIV in the town of Ratodero where the doctor was practicing. Media reports suggest that at least 98 people were found to be HIV-positive after 2,400 people were screened.
Sikandar Ali, a provincial program manager for HIV/AIDS control, says the situation is alarming.
“It is very astonishing for us. Usually this disease is not of the general population, and here we sadly see [a] lot of the general population [are] affected, which is alarming for us,” he told the Telegraph.
- With reporting by the Telegraph