Children pay the price in Pakistan’s mass HIV outbreak

A woman and her daughter, who are both HIV positive, walk outside their home in Subhani Shar village near Rato Dero, in southern Sindh province, Pakistan, on March 25, 2021. (AFP)
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Updated 14 June 2021

Children pay the price in Pakistan’s mass HIV outbreak

  • Pakistan’s largest HIV testing and treatment center was established in the rural town of Rota Dero in the wake of the disaster
  • Poor infection control is rife across impoverished Pakistan, where doctors often re-use equipment to cut costs

Rato Dero, Pakistan: Since his son was diagnosed with HIV during a mass outbreak in Pakistan among babies and children, hard-up Shahzado Shar has often been forced to choose between food and medicine.

His five-year-old was one of hundreds who tested positive in 2019 after a whistleblower doctor uncovered a scandal involving the re-use of needles in southern Sindh province.
The number of patients quickly swelled and two years later the figure stands at more than 1,500, according to data from the provincial health ministry.
Pakistan’s largest HIV testing and treatment center was established in the rural town of Rota Dero in the wake of the disaster, dishing out life-saving anti-retroviral drugs.
But affected families must cover further costs arising from the illness themselves.
“They tell us to go for further tests in private hospitals, but we don’t have sufficient money,” Shar told AFP, describing how his son continues to suffer from regular fever, abdominal and kidney pain.
Around 30 other children are also HIV positive in their small village of Subhani Shar, just a few kilometers from Rato Dero.
Pakistan’s public hospitals, located largely in cities, are often chaotic and inefficient, leaving rural families to rely on private clinics they can seldom afford that are often stuffed with unlicensed doctors.
At least 50 children have died since they were diagnosed, said paediatric specialist Fatima Mir, from Aga Khan University in Karachi, who has analyzed the data — though she had expected the number to be higher given the malnutrition and poverty among families in the area.
Authorities blamed a single physician — a popular child specialist in Rato Dero — for causing the outbreak.
Muzaffar Ghangro is currently out on bail, with court hearings repeatedly pushed back, much to the anger of many families.
He denies the charges laid against him, saying other doctors have pinned the outbreak on him because of his successful practice.

Poor infection control is rife across impoverished Pakistan, where doctors often re-use equipment to cut costs — out of necessity or greed.
The doctor who first exposed Sindh’s dirty needle scandal says little has changed since 2019.
“Things are as bad as they were at the time of the outbreak,” said whistleblower Imran Akbar Arbani, who called malpractice in the country “ruthless.”
Arbani took his data on the outbreak to local media after discovering an alarming number of babies with HIV in Rato Dero, where he has a private clinic.
He said authorities were quick to react at the time, but that discipline has since slipped.
“In the first three months, quacks and unauthorized medical practitioners were banned and their clinics were sealed, but they obtained clearance later on,” he said.
Rafiq Khanani, a doctor and the president of the Infectious Diseases Society of Pakistan, said regulations were ineffective or routinely ignored.
“The regulatory departments exist only on documents and in offices... practically, they are ineffective.”
In the wake of the scandal, the government banned the import of conventional syringes, insisting only on single-use auto-lock needles which cannot be re-deployed.
But a Sindh health official who did not want to be named told AFP that many doctors were circumventing the ban and still buying the cheaper models.

At Rato Dero’s HIV testing and treatment center, patients sit facing a television screen churning out health care advice in the local Sindhi language.
A frail 20-year-old man sits silently with his father, waiting for the results of rapid HIV test.
Paediatric specialist Fatima Mir said successful mass testing helped to identify victims of the crisis and slow down onward transmissions.
But Pakistan now has to go beyond the vital antiretrovirals and offer more rounded care to patients, Ayesha Isani Majeed, the head of the government’s National AIDS Control Programme, told AFP.
As the sun sets in Subhani Shar, a mother sits with her daughter draped across her lap, suffering another bout of fever.
Hakima Shar says she sometimes forgets to administer the drugs — which can control the virus and help prevent onward transmission — to her four-year-old, who often refuses to take them.
“We are very poor... I wake up with the sun and start working, so who else will give her the medicine regularly?” said the 25-year-old mother, who has also contracted the virus.
Many families had never heard of HIV, but now it dominates their lives.
“The government doesn’t provide us with antibiotics or multivitamins and we can’t afford to buy them ourselves,” she said.
“We are doomed.”

Pakistani journalists, lawyers call for review of British-era sedition laws seen as detrimental to free speech

Updated 22 sec ago

Pakistani journalists, lawyers call for review of British-era sedition laws seen as detrimental to free speech

  • The sedition law carries life imprisonment which legal experts say is against the fundamental rights of citizens
  • Journalist association urges the government to regulate implementation of the law to avoid vengeance and discrimination

ISLAMABAD: Pakistani journalists and lawyers on Thursday urged the government to formulate a mechanism to follow before registering cases under laws related to sedition, saying this was a pre-requisture to avoiding discrimination, vengeance and suppression of freedom of expression.

Pakistani governments and even private individuals have filed cases against journalists and activists in recent years under colonial-era sedition and incitement laws. A majority of these cases are registered under section 124-A of the Pakistan Penal Code, commonly known as the sedition law, and its sections 505 and 506, for incitement and promoting hatred between different religious, racial, or regional groups.

Pakistan’s sedition law carries sentences of life imprisonment which lawyers and journalists say was a “harsh punishment” used by  governments to silence critics and suppress freedom of expression.

“Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise, brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards, the federal or provincial government established by law shall be punished with imprisonment for life to which fine may be added, or with imprisonment which may extend to three years, to which fine may be added, or with fine,” Pakistan’s law of sedition says.

“This section of the law is of sensitive nature and its implementation needs to be regulated,” Afzal Butt, president of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ), told Arab News. “There must be a mechanism that needs to be followed before registration of a criminal case under the sedition law … The due process must be followed to avoid discrimination and vengeance.”

Butt said a majority of the cases registered under sedition and incitement laws were later quashed by the courts for being “frivolous in nature and lodged in violation of the merit.”

“Criminal cases are not registered against journalists anywhere in the world on the basis of their news and analysis,” he said, adding that Pakistani governments had been using these laws to gag journalists and media houses for decades.

“These laws should either be abolished completely, or reformed at least to ensure their just application,” Butt said.

The Pakistan government says it does not suppress the press.

Legal experts have also raised questions over the sedition law, calling for its repeal to ensure the freedom of expression.

“There is need to at least revisit this British-era law’s characteristics and features to avoid its misuse by the authorities,” Advocate Mian Ali Ashfaq, who recently represented journalist Imran Riaz Khan in sedition cases, told Arab News.

He said the charge of sedition against anybody was of a “heinous nature” that would quickly invite public reaction, therefore a vetting process before registration of the case should be made mandatory.

“Proper protocols should be set up to see if the sedition charges against a journalist or activist were substantiated and tangible,” he said. “There must be no blanket application of the law.”

Advocate Abid Saqi, who challenged the application of sedition laws in a case in the Lahore High Court in October 2020, said the law was made when there was no concept of the constitution and the freedom of expression.

“This law must be abolished,” he told Arab News, “as this is against the fundamental rights of the citizens including the freedom of expression.”

In Karachi, 104-year-old migrant from India recalls potent memories of a violent partition

Updated 11 August 2022

In Karachi, 104-year-old migrant from India recalls potent memories of a violent partition

  • Muhammad Akram Khan’s family swapped an affluent life for an uncertain future in Pakistan in 1947
  • Khan got his passport made a few years ago but the dream to travel back to India could not come true

KARACHI: With six metal suitcases, three filled with gold and three with clothes, the family of Muhammad Akram Khan fled Jabalpur in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh for newly created Pakistan in 1947, leaving without saying goodbye even to best friends and forsaking a sprawling home and a vast business for an uncertain future in Karachi.

In this undated photo, Muhammad Akram Khan, 104-year-old migrant, photographed with the children in his family in his hometown, Jabalpur in India. (AN photo)

Khan’s family was among the millions whose lives were thrown into turmoil by the partition of colonial India into two states, mainly Hindu India and mostly Muslim Pakistan, when British rule ended in 1947.

One of the biggest mass migrations in history was marred by violence and bloodshed as about 15 million Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs swapped countries in a political upheaval that cost more than a million lives.

Muhammad Akram Khan, a 104-year-old transporter who migrated from Jabalpur in India after the independence of Pakistan 75 years ago, shares with Arab News his story of partition at Frere Hall, Karachi on August 2, 2022. (AN photo)

Before partition, Khan, now 104 years old, recalled that his family lived in harmony with Hindu neighbours and the young man’s best friend was a neighbour called Shankar Lal. But in the months running up to the partition of India on August 14, Khan said he began to feel unsafe and started convincing his reluctant father to leave for Pakistan.

“I’m alive today but tomorrow they’ll kill me,” he said, quoting his words to his father. “All young men will be killed if we don’t leave.”

When the family eventually left, they took the route of Khokhrapar, a border town situated in Tharparkar District in Sindh, considering it safer compared to Punjab province where much of the violence was taking place. With death looming over him, Khan walked for miles and miles with his family, often carrying his disabled mother on his shoulders, until they made it safely to the other side. 

The Sikh personnel who checked the family’s luggage at the border were kind, he said, and the Sikh and Hindus they met along the way, who were en route India, also didn’t show hate.

But the ordeal didn’t end there.

Muhammad Akram Khan, a 104-year-old migrant, chats with his sons and grandchildren in Karachi, Pakistan, on August 2, 2022. (AN photo)

In Pakistan “there was no shade,” Khan said, and his family had to wait a whole day to catch a train to Karachi. At first, the family lived in a small house owned by a relative, before moving to a shanty for several years. Finally, at a cost of Rs2,400, the government allotted them two small quarters in Karachi's Korangi area.

Muhammad Akram Khan, a 104-year-old transporter who migrated from Jabalpur in India after the independence of Pakistan 75 years ago, shares with Arab News his story of partition at Frere Hall, Karachi on August 2, 2022. (AN photo)

It took Khan a few months to grasp the new reality of his life, but he ultimately resumed the scrap business after selling the 12 kilograms of gold the family had brought with them from Madhya Pradesh and eventually bought cycle-rickshaws to launch a transportation business.

“I earned and built bungalows,” Khan said, smiling. “I have constructed 25 to 30 houses, all through my hard work.”

The centenarian said he had lived a full life, tying the knot four times.

“Now at my home there are 200 people,” he said smiling. His eldest daughter is in her 90s and youngest is 14 years old.  

Though he does not regret his decision to migrate to Pakistan, Khan said he was distressed by the country’s ever worsening economic situation.

“We dreamt of a great Pakistan,” he said. “We wanted young people to be honest, hardworking and respectful toward their parents and country.”

Khan got his passport a few decades ago and had a strong urge to return to Jabalpur to meet old friends. The dream of traveling back to India, however, has not come true.

“I don’t think I will be able to go now since my eyes don’t open,” he said, wistfully. “In any case, who am I going to meet there after so much time has passed?”

Norwegian woman climber on track to break 'super peaks' record

Updated 11 August 2022

Norwegian woman climber on track to break 'super peaks' record

  • Kristin Harila successfully summit Pakistan's Gasherbrum I on Thursday  
  • Pakistan has enjoyed a record-breaking climbing season this year

ISLAMABAD: Norwegian climber Kristin Harila has just three mountains left in her bid to climb the world's 14 "super peaks" in record time after successfully summiting Pakistan's Gasherbrum I, officials said Thursday.
Nepali Nirmal Purja holds the record for climbing the world's 8,000 meter-plus (26,000 feet) mountains -- six months and six days -- but Harila now has until early November to complete her quest and beat his time.
Harila's latest successful summit was reported on her official social media pages and confirmed by Karrar Hadri, secretary of Pakistan's Alpine Club.
"The second phase in Pakistan was very challenging and dangerous: ever-changing weather conditions, being hit by a rock, illness and a very tight schedule," read a message on Harila's Instagram page.
"But here we are with only three peaks left."
Five of the 14 super peaks are in Pakistan -- including K2, the world's second highest mountain -- and the country has enjoyed a record-breaking climbing season this year.
Sajid Hussain, head of the tourism department in Gilgit Baltistan, told AFP they had issued about 1,780 permits for the top peaks.
"It has boosted our tourism and has increased our foreign exchange," he said.
Only around 40 people in history have summited all 14 of the super peaks, but none have come close to Purja's 2019 expedition.
He demolished the previous record for accomplishing the feat with supplemental oxygen, set by Poland's Jerzy Kukuczka in the 1980s at seven years, 11 months and 14 days.
In an interview with AFP earlier this year, 36-year-old Harila said she was inspired to show women were as capable as men of achieving great mountaineering feats.
"In history and until now, it has been the strong macho men going out climbing mountains," she said.
"When I talk to people that are not in this sport, they believe that men are more capable than women... If we are going to change, we need to get attention and show that women are just as capable."
The three remaining mountains for Harila are Cho Oyu (sixth highest, in Nepal/China), Manaslu (eighth, Nepal) and Shishapangma (14th, China). 

Government in Pakistan’s northwest takes note of Taliban resurgence, pledges to ensure writ of state

Updated 11 August 2022

Government in Pakistan’s northwest takes note of Taliban resurgence, pledges to ensure writ of state

  • Swat Valley was a former Pakistan Taliban bastion seized by Pakistan’s army in a major offensive in 2009
  • This week saw widespread reports of the return of the Pakistani Taliban to Swat and parts of Waziristan

PESHAWAR: A spokesperson for the government of Pakistan’s northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province said on Thursday the local administration had taken notice of a protest against reports of the return of a banned militant outfit to the area, ensuring the public that the government would ensure it write.

Swat Valley was a former Pakistan Taliban bastion seized by Pakistan’s army in a major offensive in 2009. During a reign of terror under the Taliban before the military operation, militants decapitated people and tied the heads to the victim’s feet. Bodies were left hanging by telephone poles and for days no one was allowed to take them down for burial.

This week, there have been widespread reports of the return of the Pakistani Taliban, also known as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP, to Swat and parts of Waziristan.

“The provincial government has already taken notice following a security incident in Swat and a sit-in by tribesmen in the country’s restive North Waziristan tribal district,” KP government spokesman Barrister Muhammad Ali Saif told Arab News on Thursday.

“The province’s top police officer, district administration and security officials are in Swat to address reservations of people regarding the presence of some armed men in remote mountains. We’ll ensure writ of the government at every cost because our security officials have already rendered matchless sacrifices for peace there.”

The reports of the resurgence of the Taliban come as the government of Pakistan and the TTP are holding peace talks to end violence in the country, with the latest round of negotiations held last month in Kabul and mediated by the Afghan Taliban who rule Afghanistan.

The TTP, which has carried out some of the bloodiest attacks in Pakistan since 2007, is not directly affiliated with the Afghan Taliban.

Swat police spokesperson Moin Fayyaz said a search operation by Swat police was being conducted in remote areas, including Kabal and Khwazkhela, to purge the region of” miscreants” who two days ago opened fire at a police party, leaving a senior police officer wounded.

For the past several days, an unverified video has been making the rounds on social media, showing security officials, including a senior police officer, in the captivity of militants. The hostages were later released on the mediation of tribal elders in the area, according to media reports.

Zahid Khan, an elder and social worker from Swat, told Arab News the presence of militants had been observed in the Kanala and Balasoor mountainous regions of Swat, who were threatening well-off people, traders and contractors to pay extortion money.

“We’ve summoned a grand jirga on August 17 of all tribes in Mingora, the main town in Swat, in which we will develop consensus on how to deal with emerging threats posed by militancy,” Khan added.

In 2009, thousands of families in Swat were forced to flee to safer areas after authorities asked people to leave their homes following a military operation against militants there.

“We can’t afford to leave our homes again and live a refugee life in other districts. We’ll offer stout resistance against any eventuality,” Khan added.

Jamal Dawar, a tribal elder from the North Waziristan tribal district, said that a sit-in staged by thousands of tribesmen has entered its 26th day, closing all main arteries of the district including a route leading to the Pak-Afghan Ghulam Khan border.

He said the protesters were demanding security following a sharp rise in targeted killings in the restive district.

“We’re just told that a high level delegation of all political parties including government and security officials will meet the protesters in Edak, a village where the sit-in is underway, to address our prime demand of security and getting rid of targeted killings,” Dawar added.

According to a notification, a copy of which was seen by Arab News, the federal government has constituted a committee comprising senior political leaders to meet tribesmen in North Waziristan district and address their concerns.

“The formation of a committee by the federal government to meet protesters in North Waziristan is nothing but a political gimmick and political point-scoring,” the KP spokesperson said. “The provincial government is already in contact with the elders of the district to address their legitimate issues.”

PM Sharif hopes GSP+ trade status will continue for Pakistan beyond 2023

Updated 11 August 2022

PM Sharif hopes GSP+ trade status will continue for Pakistan beyond 2023

  • European Union is Pakistan’s second biggest trade partner
  • Pakistan’s GSP+ status is set to expire on December 31, 2023

ISLAMABAD: Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif said on Thursday he hoped the European Union's (EU) preferential trade arrangement with Pakistan known as the GSP+ would continue beyond 2023.

Sharif was meeting with Dr. Riina Kionka, the newly appointed Ambassador of the European Union to Pakistan.

The Generalized Scheme of Preferences Plus (GSP+) was first institutionalized in 1971 and has since been a trade and development policy instrument which allows the EU to remove duties from products exported by vulnerable developing countries.

Under the GSP+ status, designated countries get special access to the European market after making commitments to implement several international conventions on human rights, environmental protection and governance.

Pakistan’s GSP+ status is set to expire on December 31, 2023.

In a meeting with ambassador Kionka PM Sharif underlined that Pakistan attached "high importance" to its relations with the EU, as well as its historically close and cooperative bilateral ties with EU member states.

“He [PM Sharif] credited the current GSP Plus scheme with enhancing the mutually beneficial trading ties between Pakistan and EU and hoped that Pakistan would continue to be part of the arrangement beyond 2023,” a statement from the PM Office said.

The EU is Pakistan’s second biggest trade partner, accounting for 14.3 percent of the country’s total trade in 2020 and absorbing 28 percent of its total exports.

“Prime Minister expressed the confidence that the upcoming visits to Pakistan by the EU Parliamentary delegations as well as the next rounds of political and security Dialogues under EU-Pakistan Strategic Engagement Plan would pave the way for more substantive cooperation between the two sides,” the statement added.

“Dr. Riina Kionka thanked the Prime Minister for receiving her and expressed her resolve to work for further deepening of EU-Pakistan relations during her tenure in Islamabad,” the statement said. 

Last year in April, the European Parliament moved a resolution against Pakistan, seeking an immediate review of its eligibility for GSP+ status over what it called violence and discrimination against religious minorities and other vulnerable groups, as well as a crackdown on media.