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Hundreds of HIV-Infected Pakistani Children Left Untreated

Pakistani villagers wait outside a hospital for blood screening for HIV at a hospital in a village near Ratodero, a small town in southern province of Sindh in Pakistan where the outbreak of deadly disease took place last month, Thursday, May 16, 2019.

The U.N. World Health Organization says hundreds of HIV positive children in Pakistan cannot get treatment because there are not enough antiretroviral drugs in the country.

The children are in Larkana, a poverty-stricken district in southern Sindh province, where during the past six weeks nearly 785 people have been diagnosed with the virus that causes AIDS.

Officials say 82% or around 650 confirmed cases are children, most of them under the age of 5, while nearly all their parents tested negative.

The WHO said in a statement it tweeted Thursday that only 43% of the total positive cases are receiving Anti-Retroviral Treatment (ART) because of insufficient stocks.

“Current stocks are enough to meet the needs of 240 children until July, 15, 2019, of which 231 are already receiving treatment,” it said. “This means that only nine more children can be enrolled for treatment using available stocks, leaving many other children, who have tested positive without treatment,” the statement warned.

Until the recent outbreak in Larkana, officials say, just more than 1,000 children were living with HIV in Pakistan.

Pakistani authorities, with the help of international partners, including the WHO, have subjected nearly 27,000 individuals to blood screening since April 25, when the unprecedented HIV outbreak was first announced in Larkana, with an estimated population of 1.5 million.

The area at the center of the outbreak is having temperatures above 50 degrees Celsius, and lacks paved roads and public transportation facilities, making it difficult for families to travel to makeshift screening camps, say members of international teams helping local partners to respond to the HIV epidemic.

Pakistan's Tariq Ali, 30 along with his wife Parveen and 3-year-old Ume Kulssom all infected with HIV sit at their home near Ratodero, May,16, 2019.
Pakistan's Tariq Ali, 30 along with his wife Parveen and 3-year-old Ume Kulssom all infected with HIV sit at their home near Ratodero, May,16, 2019.

The federal government's adviser on health, Zafar Mirza, said the government was in the process of importing medicine to ensure treatment for all children infected with HIV. He explained at a recent news briefing in Islamabad that there were insufficient stocks in the country because it is unusual for children to be infected by HIV on such a massive scale.

A WHO official confirmed to VOA the medicine is already on its way from Ethiopia and will soon be available to all children infected with the virus.

Mirza said the government is also importing 50,000 new kits for blood screening and three treatment centers are being established in Larkana as well as districts around it.

Officials say that possible drivers of the outbreak seem to indicate unsafe practices of blood transfusion, re-use of injection needles and syringes, drips, and poor infection control practices, including a lack of sterilization.

A joint rapid response team of experts from the United States and the WHO are currently visiting the area to help uncover the cause of Pakistan’s biggest HIV outbreak. The preliminary findings of the investigation are expected to be announced Friday.

Pakistani and U.N. officials suspect the unprecedented outbreak could be the outcome of shady medical practices in public as well as private hospitals. Additionally, they note that out of an estimated 600,000 unqualified doctors unlawfully practicing across the country, 270,000 are located in Sindh.

With 20,000 new HIV infections in 2017, Pakistan has the second fastest growing AIDS epidemic in the region. Officials caution the number of HIV/AIDS carriers in the country stands around 163,000, but reported cases are far less than the actual magnitude of the epidemic.

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.