HIV outbreak sparks panic in southern Pakistan

In this image taken on May 9, 2019, a Pakistani paramedic takes a blood sample from a baby for a HIV test at a state-run hospital in Rato Dero in the district of Larkana of the southern Sindh province. (AFP)
Updated 16 May 2019
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HIV outbreak sparks panic in southern Pakistan

  • Health officials say more than 400 people, many of them children, have tested HIV positive
  • Anger and fear continue to swell in the desperately poor village hit hard by the epidemic

RATO DERO, Pakistan: Parents nervously watch as their children wait to be tested for HIV in a village in southern Pakistan, where hundreds of people have been allegedly infected by a doctor using a contaminated syringe.
Dispatched to keep order, police scan the anxious crowd as families hustle into one of five different screening rooms set up in the last month in the village of Wasayo, on the outskirts of Larkana in Sindh province.
Health officials say more than 400 people, many of them children, have tested HIV positive in recent weeks as experts warn of a surge in infection rates across Pakistan, due to the use of unsanitary equipment and rampant malpractice — often at the hands of quack doctors.
Anger and fear continue to swell in the desperately poor village hit hard by the epidemic, which authorities say could be linked to either gross negligence or malicious intent by a local pediatrician.

In this image taken on May 8, 2019, Pakistani women hold their HIV infected children as they gather at a house at Wasayo village in Rato Dero in the district of Larkana of the southern Sindh province. (AFP)


“They are coming by the dozens,” says a doctor at the makeshift clinic, beset by a lack of equipment and personnel to treat the surging number of patients.
Mukhtar Pervez waits anxiously to have her daughter tested, worrying a recent fever may be linked to the outbreak. For others, their worst fears have already become a reality.
Nisar Ahmed arrived at the clinic in a furious search for medicine after his one-year-old daughter tested positive three days earlier.
“I curse [the doctor] who has caused all these children to be infected,” he says angrily.
Nearby Imam Zadi accompanies five of her children to be examined after her grandson tested positive.
“The entire family is so upset,” she tells AFP.
Others worry their children’s futures have been irreparably harmed after contracting HIV, especially in a country whose masses of rural poor have little understanding of the disease or access to treatment.
“Who is she going to play with? And when she’s grown up, who would want to marry her?” asks a tearful mother from a nearby village, who asked not to named, of her four-year-old daughter who just tested positive.

In this image taken on May 8, 2019, a Pakistani paramedic takes a blood sample from a woman for a HIV test at a state-run hospital in Rato Dero in the district of Larkana of the southern Sindh province. (AFP)

Pakistan was long considered a low prevalence country for HIV, but the disease is expanding at an alarming rate, particularly among intravenous drug users and sex workers.
With about 20,000 new HIV infections reported in 2017 alone, Pakistan currently has the second fastest growing HIV rates across Asia, according to the UN.
Pakistan’s surging population also suffers the additional burden of having insufficient access to quality health care following decades of under-investment by the state, leaving impoverished, rural communities especially vulnerable to unqualified medical practitioners.
“According to some government reports, around 600,000 quack doctors are operating across the country and around 270,000 are practicing in the province of Sindh,” said UNAIDS in a statement.
Provincial health officials have also noted that patients are at particular risk of contracting diseases or viruses at these clinics, where injections are often pushed as a primary treatment option.
“For the sake of saving money, these quacks will inject multiple patients with a single syringe. This could be the main cause of the spread of HIV cases,” said Sikandar Memon, provincial program manager of the Sindh Aids Control Programme.
The large number of unqualified doctors along with the “reuse of syringes, unsafe blood transfusions, and other unsafe medical practices” have all led to the spike in HIV cases in recent years, explains Bushra Jamil, an expert on infectious diseases at the Aga Khan University in Karachi.
“Rampant medical malpractices without any effective checks and balances are causing repeated outbreaks in Pakistan,” said Jamil.
Authorities investigating the outbreak in Sindh say the accused doctor has also tested positive for HIV.
From a ramshackle jail cell in the nearby city of Ratodero, he denied the charges and accusations he knowingly injected his patients with the virus, while complaining of being incarcerated with common criminals.
But for the parents of the newly diagnosed, the ongoing investigation means little if they are unable to secure access to better information and the necessary drugs that can help stave off the deadly AIDS virus.
“We are helpless. I have other children and I am afraid they might catch the disease,” says another mother whose daughter recently tested positive for HIV.
“[Please] send some medicine for our children so that they can be cured. If not, all of our children will die, right?“


British Airways to resume Pakistan flights next week after a decade

Updated 23 May 2019
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British Airways to resume Pakistan flights next week after a decade

  • BA halted service to Pakistan in the wake of the 2008 Marriott Hotel bombing in Islamabad
  • BA will begin the London Heathrow-Islamabad service with the Boeing 787 Dreamliner

ISLAMABAD: British Airways will resume flights to Pakistan next week a decade after it suspended operations following a major hotel bombing, becoming the first Western airline to restart flights to the South Asian country.

BA halted service to Pakistan in the wake of the 2008 Marriott Hotel bombing in the capital Islamabad that took place during a period of devastating Islamist militant violence in Pakistan.

Security has since improved, with militant attacks sharply down in the mainly Muslim country of 208 million people, reviving Pakistan as a destination for tourist and investors.

“The final touches are coming together for the airline’s return ahead of the first flight on Sunday June 2,” British Airways said in a statement. It will launch a three-per-week service to London Heathrow, it said.

“We’re on board,” Pakistani Civil Aviation spokeswoman Farah Hussain said about the flights resumption.

BA, which is owned by Spanish-registered IAG, will begin the London Heathrow-Islamabad service with the airline’s newest long-haul aircraft, the Boeing 787 Dreamliner.

At present, only loss-making national carrier Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) flies directly from Pakistan to Britain, but its ageing fleet of planes is a frequent source of complaints by passengers.

Middle Eastern carriers Qatar Airways, Etihad Airways and Emirates have a strong presence in Pakistan and have been eating into PIA’s dwindling market share. Turkish Airlines also lays on a regular service to Pakistan.

Islamabad has been running international advertising campaigns to rejuvenate its tourism sector, which was wiped out by Islamist violence that destabilised the country following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in the United States and the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan.

“We hope customers in both the UK and Pakistan will enjoy the classically British service we offer, with thoughtful bespoke touches,” Andrew Brem, Chief Commercial Officer at British Airways, said in BA’s statement.

BA said there will be a halal meal option in every cabin and the airline would also ensure sauces in every meal do not contain alcohol or pork.