KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 28 – More than 1,100 citizens of Pakistan’s Ratodero city are confirmed to be HIV positive, an outbreak believed to be caused by doctors reusing syringes.
Almost 900 of these numbers are children younger than 12, with health officials believing that the real numbers are probably much higher, as only a fraction of the population has been tested so far.
“It was devastating,” said Gulbabar Shaikh, a television journalist in Ratodero who broke the story of the epidemic, according to the New York Times.
Officials initially discovered that many of the infected children had gone to the same pediatrician, Muzaffar Ghanghro, who served the city’s poorest families and appeared to be at the centre of the outbreak.
Ghanghro was arrested and charged by the police with negligence, manslaughter and causing unintentional harm.
But he has not yet been convicted and denies ever reusing syringes.
He also recently renewed his medical certificate and now works as a general practitioner at a government hospital on the outskirts of Ratodero.
Pakistan’s law indicates that the reuse of syringes is an offence that is not eligible for bail.
But health officials now say that Ghanghro is unlikely to be the sole cause of the outbreak, as visiting health workers discovered many cases of doctors reusing syringes and IV needles.
The officials reportedly said that unhygienic practices are common in the country and is probably the leading cause of the country’s surging rates of HIV infection.
Pakistani government was slow to respond to Ratodero’s outbreak and did not have adequate resources to test residents and treat the sick.
But teams of international health workers from various countries came to the city to help, and the World Health Organization has donated hundreds of testing kits.
The society’s awareness and acceptance of the virus is still low, and the lack of manpower to address the issue is not enough for the size of the outbreak.
The sick children in schools are separated from the healthy, and forced to sit on one side of the classroom.
“My wife and I, fortunately, we are literate. We hug and love our daughter. But our relatives stopped touching her and are now reluctant to visit us,” said Shaikh, whose daughter is now responding well to treatment.
From 2010 to 2018, the number of HIV positive people in Pakistan increased to about 160,000, according to estimates by UNAIDS, the United Nations task force that specialises in HIV and AIDS. The same period also recorded a jump in the number of new infections by 38 percent in those 15 to 24.
“With competing priorities, HIV and AIDS is at the back seat of the government’s agenda,” Maria Elena Filio-Borromeo, the UNAIDS director for Pakistan and Afghanistan, was quoted saying.
To combat the outbreak, the Pakistani authorities in May started closing the clinics of unqualified doctors and illegal blood banks, but months later, however, some of those clinics had since reopened.