The number of coronavirus cases in Pakistan jumped Monday from 52 to more than 180, with most of the patients being returnees from Iran. The situation has raised fears the outbreak could pose a major challenge to an already strained national health care system.
No deaths or confirmed local transmissions have been reported, and officials say
almost all of the cases involve returnees from countries such as China, Iran, Syria, the United States, Britain and Saudi Arabia.
Most of the patients were in the southern Sindh province, where 146 people were being kept in isolation wards. Two others were sent home after recovery. Hundreds more were in quarantine camps in different provincial urban centers.
Provincial government spokesman Murtaza Wahab noted a large number of the cases involved pilgrims who returned from Taftaan, a major southwestern crossing point on the Iranian border in the Pakistani province of Baluchistan.
Local officials have warned an unspecified number of returnees used traditional illegal border crossings to avoid being placed in quarantine camps, raising fears of further transmissions.
Pakistan has sealed its borders with Iran and landlocked Afghanistan until early April to curb the movement of people and goods and stem the spread of COVID-19 in the region.
Authorities have also delayed the post-winter reopening of the country's only overland crossing with China, where the coronavirus caused most of the deaths and infections before spreading to other nations.
Last Friday, the Pakistani government ordered all educational institutions to shut, limited international flights, closed cinemas and banned wedding parties as well as large gatherings at public places across the country of more than 220 million people.
Beijing's ambassador to Islamabad, Yao Jing, told Chinese state media Monday that China has provided Pakistan with 12,000 test kits, 300,000 masks, 10,000 protective suits and a financial assistance package of $4 million to build hospitals to deal with the emergency.
China has invested billions of dollars in Pakistan over the past five years, building roads, ports and power plants. The massive collaboration has brought thousands of Chinese engineers and other experts to Pakistan.
Existing public health emergency
Officials acknowledge the coronavirus outbreak could pose a serious challenge to Pakistan's stressed medical health care system, blaming the situation on a lack of funding, neglect, nepotism and corruption.
"The current condition of the public health care sector in Pakistan is not less than a national tragedy and a national security issue," Minister of Health Zafar Mirza said at a seminar in Islamabad earlier this month.
Pakistan, together with neighboring Afghanistan, are the only two countries where poliovirus remains endemic, he noted.
The World Health Organization office in Islamabad told VOA in a written response that Pakistan has the highest number of people suffering from hepatitis C, after China.
“An estimated 8 million people are living with hepatitis C, more than 10% of the world’s total and another 4 million are estimated infected with hepatitis B,” it said.
Last year, Pakistan experienced an unprecedented HIV outbreak in the city of Larkana in Sindh, with more than 1,000 children reported infected with the virus. The WHO says many of the diagnosed children are infected with hepatitis B and C as well.
Pakistani and WHO officials have identified several pockets of HIV and viral hepatitis B and C in various parts of Pakistan "due to unsafe injection practices and unsafe blood transfusion and improper hospital waste management."
Mirza said Pakistan is the fifth largest country in terms of the number of people suffering from tuberculosis. The population is growing at a rate of 2.4 percent, which will double the number of people in Pakistan in the next 30 years, the minister cautioned.