Air pollution: Doctors report prolonged respiratory illnesses in Lahore’s children, risks from fatal diseases

Students cross a rail track amid smoggy conditions in Lahore on November 30, 2021. (AFP/FILE)
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Updated 05 March 2023
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Air pollution: Doctors report prolonged respiratory illnesses in Lahore’s children, risks from fatal diseases

  • One Lahore study that randomly sampled school children showed 20 percent of children had asthma
  • Doctors say Pakistan lacks national action plan on air pollution, warn kids can get heart diseases, cancer

LAHORE: Data and interviews with experts and paediatricians show Pakistani children are suffering from prolonged respiratory illnesses due to increasing air pollution, with health practitioners warning of a rise in cases of hypertension, heart diseases and even cancer among young Pakistanis in the absence of a “national action plan” to tackle worsening air quality levels.

Pakistan is the fourth most polluted country in the world, with almost all of it’s 220 million people living in areas where the annual average particulate pollution level exceeds the WHO guideline, according to IQAIR, which monitors air contamination worldwide.

The country’s eastern city of Lahore, the second largest by population and area and the capital of Punjab province, is among the world’s most polluted urban centers, with IQAIR recording an Air Quality Index (AQI) of 438 in the city in peak smog season last November, a figure that was globally the highest at the time. Compare this to the fact that air is only healthy up to an AQI of 50 and children suffer the most from pollution since they breathe more rapidly than adults and inhale more pollutants.

“We frequently put up the worst numbers,” Professor Waqar Hussain, a paediatrician at Lahore’s Shalimar Hospital, told Arab News, saying the AQI for Lahore frequently veered between 300 and 400: “This is a calamity of epic proportions.”

“Smog destroys respiratory cilia [which clean up debris in human airways], and once gone, the cilia can’t slow down a virus or an infection,” he said. “Our kids already have low immunity because of nutritional deficiencies, and when combined with environmental pollution, these infections become deadly.”

Hussain said air pollution caused more than 50 percent of lower respiratory infections among children, while pregnant women exposed to toxic air were also likely to give premature births with potential complications.

“The UK and the US have the same viruses and infections as us,” Hussain said, comparing Pakistan’s situation with developed countries. “Upper respiratory tract wise, we all see about 10 episodes per year in a child. But in the lower respiratory tract, in the lungs, our numbers [in Lahore] are four times higher. Pneumonia, for instance, asthma, childhood cancer, early age cardiac problems are all in higher incidence here.”

Smog can also lead to fatal complications with diseases like tuberculosis and prolong respiratory infections.

“America’s school going children get a lot of viral infections but they get better in a week,” he said, while children in Lahore suffered for months in such cases.

“IT’S A CRISIS“

Hussain said he was involved in a recent study that randomly sampled school children from different social strata in Lahore for medical checkup.

“From government schools to elite private schools like Aitchison, when the tests came back, 20 percent of the children were diagnosed with asthma,” he said. “Their families had no idea.”

In terms of children’s illnesses, he said last year was among the worst he had ever witnessed in his medical career.

“That’s why I conducted a seminar this January,” he added. “We called experts. It’s a crisis, we have to do something.”

“The mixture of surface level ozone, nitrogen dioxide, fine particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, lead, it’s a case of picking your poison,” Hussain said while explaining the effects of smog on children. “Fetal development is badly affected. Air pollution also impairs neurodevelopment and cognitive function. Autism is rapidly increasing. These are all things I’m witnessing every year now.”

Pakistan Pediatrics Association’s Punjab President Dr. Naeem Zafar said the rise in the number of serious diseases among children in recent years may also have something to do with the coronavirus pandemic that started spreading in late-2020.

“I think COVID-19 has exacerbated problems [of pollution] in a population with already weakened immune systems,” he told Arab News. “Then there are many influenza strains that have recently evolved.”

“Look, we have had smog for decades,” he added. “There were government commissions set up in the 70s, in the 80s, there were short term or aesthetic remedies, visible smog was reduced but the air quality remained bad. The surge in mortality you’re seeing these last few winters probably has more to do with the viruses. They’re much worse now, even in adults.”

However, Professor Hussain was not convinced and said viruses had been around for thousands of years while pandemics happened periodically.

“We said this in the seminars. It’s to do with smog. We are not doing anything, as a government, as a society. We invited everyone to the seminar, our association went to the health department, but no public policy promises were made.”

Hussain pointed out the United States, United Kingdom and China burned more fossil fuels than Pakistan, but they had also improved the overall environmental situation in the last many years as climate change became a reality.

“We join a committee, give a recommendation, then what? Where is the implementation? Pakistan lacks a coordinated national action plan on air pollution,” he said.

Arab News reached out to Syed Hammad Raza Bukhari, the Punjab health department spokesperson, several times to seek comment for this story but he declined. 

Noor Ahmed, a deputy director for the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), a research project launched by the Environmental Protection Department (EPD) to monitor Punjab province, was also unavailable for comment.

“THINGS ARE GOING TO GET WORSE“

Dr. Shahzad Khurram, a paediatrician with 15 years of experience running his private clinic, said his anecdotal experience was the same as Professor Hussain’s.

“I treat young kids with bronchitis, ear infections, problems in the nasal passage, and pneumonia every day,” he told Arab News. “I treated a three-year-old child who had asthma for almost two years. No family history, nothing wrong with the child at birth.”

And while it was difficult, he said, to pinpoint smog as a cause, it was not impossible:

“Sometimes the respiratory problems are genetic, sometimes they’re allergies, from pollen, sometimes it’s influenza, but oftentimes we are seeing coughs and shortness of breath without any apparent cause. That’s when we know it’s smog.”

Taken in isolation, he added, these barely constituted two percent of the cases.

“But we don’t exist in isolation,” the doctor said. “If you ask me, the diseases that smog has made much, much worse, that number goes up to 50 percent. Half the children I see are presenting with symptoms much more severe than their illnesses should be presenting with.”

“I see chronically inflamed tonsils. Narrowed nasal passages in growing children. Children using inhalers twice as often as before,” he added.

Preventively, one could wear a double surgical mask, use nebulizers, take steam, monitor the daily AQI and stay in if it was very high, but these were short term alleviations.

“There are going to be more and more young people with heart diseases, hypertension, cancer,” Khurram warned. “These are just the facts out there. Things are going to get worse. It’s not just the air either, it’s the water, the food. But we simply aren’t responding as a society.”


Peshawar residents, led by PTI lawmaker, storm grid station to restore power amid heatwave

Updated 8 sec ago
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Peshawar residents, led by PTI lawmaker, storm grid station to restore power amid heatwave

  • The electric supply company says the protesters ‘forcibly switched on nine high-loss feeders’ in the area
  • It mentions losses due to power-theft, non-payment of dues, lodges police complaint against the lawmaker

ISLAMABAD: Residents of Peshawar in Pakistan’s northwest, led by a provincial lawmaker from former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, stormed a grid station on Saturday and restored electricity themselves to protest prolonged power cuts amid scorching heat.
Power outages are not uncommon in Pakistan during the summer months when the demand on the national grid spikes sharply due to the widespread use of air conditioners and desert coolers. These seasonal surges often lead to prolonged power outages, which fuel public discontent, particularly during the intense heatwaves that have swept across Pakistan in recent years.
While the blackouts can sometimes be part of the official load management strategy, Pakistani authorities have also pointed to power theft in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa as a significant issue, occasionally leading to complete shutdowns of electricity.
“If our electricity is cut off, everyone’s electricity will be cut off,” Pakistan’s Geo TV quoted the PTI lawmaker Fazal Elahi as saying after the incident.
The Peshawar Electric Supply Company (PESCO) said Elahi and other protesters entered the grid station and “forcibly switched on nine high-loss feeders” in the area.
“Losses due to power theft and non-payment of dues on these feeders are more than 80 percent,” it added.
Local media also reported that PESCO had filed a police complaint against the PTI lawmaker, who said protesters were only demanding their rights.


Jofra Archer stars as England beat Pakistan in second T20

Updated 25 May 2024
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Jofra Archer stars as England beat Pakistan in second T20

  • Skipper Jos Buttler, who smashed 84 off 51 balls, was the star of the England batting
  • Babar Azam praises Pakistani bowlers but says that the team could not finish well

BIRMINGHAM: Jofra Archer claimed two wickets on his long-awaited return to international cricket as England beat Pakistan by 23 runs at Edgbaston to move 1-0 up in the four-match T20 series.
England captain Jos Buttler won man-of-the-match after he smashed 84 off 51 balls to set the hosts a target of 184.
But it was Archer’s return that caught the eye as he made a case for selection in next month’s T20 World Cup in the United States and West Indies no harm.
The fast bowler has been beset by elbow injuries since his starring role in helping England win the 50-over World Cup in 2019.
On his first international appearance for 14 months, and first on home soil since 2020, Archer bounced back from an expensive first over, which went for 15 runs, to finish with two for 28.
“I thought Jofra Archer was brilliant,” said Buttler. “You could see his emotion taking wickets for England again but we need to temper those expectations because he’s not going to be the same straight away.
“I’m really pleased with the whole bowling group.”
Muhammad Rizwan was removed in the first over by Moeen Ali and Reece Topley took three wickets for 41.
Buttler was the star of the England batting with three sixes and eight fours.
He was ably supported by 37 from Will Jacks and Jonny Bairstow’s 21 but England failed to build on the platform given to them by their skipper.
Five wickets fell for just 25 runs as Pakistan battled back with Shaheen Shah Afridi the pick of the bowlers, taking 3-36.
“We got them to a par score, our bowlers bowled very well and we had our moments when we were batting,” said Pakistan captain Babar Azam.
Fakhar Zaman’s 45 from 21 balls gave the Pakistan chase some impetus, but after he departed the pace of Archer, Topley and Chris Jordan ripped through the tourists’ tail with four balls to spare.
“We didn’t finish well. We had a small partnership, myself and Fakhar but we didn’t get any other 40 or 50 partnerships that England did,” added Azam.
England lead the four-match series 1-0 after the first match was washed out on Wednesday.


Pakistan’s investment body to set up six country-specific desks, including one for Saudi Arabia

Updated 27 min 14 sec ago
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Pakistan’s investment body to set up six country-specific desks, including one for Saudi Arabia

  • SIFC reviews progress related to trade and investment with friendly nations in a meeting presided by PM Sharif
  • The meeting also evaluates progress on the privatization of state-owned entities, instructs timely implementation

ISLAMABAD: Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif instructed Pakistan’s top investment facilitation body to set up six country- and region-specific desks, including one solely focused on Saudi Arabia, while presiding over a meeting on Saturday that concentrated on progress related to economic collaboration with friendly nations.
Last year, the country established the Special Investment Facilitation Council (SIFC), a civil-military hybrid body designed to oversee foreign financing, to help overcome its prolonged economic turmoil that has forced successive administrations to seek financial assistance from global lenders and close allies.
Pakistani officials have primarily focused on Gulf countries since the inception of SIFC, briefing governments and businesses about investment opportunities available across various economic sectors in their country, including areas like agriculture, mining and information technology.
Following the announcement of a $10 billion investment from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) during Sharif’s daylong visit to Abu Dhabi on Thursday, Pakistan expects to receive substantial investments from the region.
“The prime minister has announced that the SIFC will have a China desk, a UAE desk, a Saudi desk, a Qatar desk, a European Union desk and a United States of America desk,” Federal Minister for Information Attaullah Tarar told the media after the meeting.
“The prime minister has formally announced these six desks to promote trade and investment,” he added. “It was a historic meeting whose fruits will become visible in the coming days.”
An official statement issued after the meeting said the SIFC appreciated the recent upsurge in trade and investment related engagements under government-to-government and business-to-business frameworks, directing concerned ministries for efficient follow-ups.
It instructed the participants to make every effort to transform the commitments received from friendly countries into tangible projects and economic dividends at a fast pace.
The meeting reviewed progress on the privatization of state-owned enterprises, expressing satisfaction over the ongoing process and urging the timely accomplishment of various milestones in collaboration with relevant stakeholders.


British-Pakistani opera singer receives royal honor for recording national anthem post-coronation

Updated 25 May 2024
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British-Pakistani opera singer receives royal honor for recording national anthem post-coronation

  • Saira Peter says she is privileged to contribute her voice to British government’s public events, citizenship ceremonies
  • She also recorded ‘God Save the Queen’ in 2018 and received acknowledgement and gratitude of Queen Elizabeth II

ISLAMABAD: A British-Pakistani Sufi Opera singer, Saira Peter, announced in a video message circulated on Saturday she received a letter of appreciation from Buckingham Palace for recording the British national anthem, “God Save the King,” following the coronation of King Charles III.
The British king’s coronation took place last May at Westminster Abbey in London. The event brought leaders and high-profile personalities from around the world and marked his official accession to the throne after the passing of Queen Elizabeth II in September 2022.
Upon receiving the recording, performed in the soprano vocal range, the highest of the female voice types in classical singing, the king sent Peter a letter conveying his good wishes and sincere thanks for her public services.
She also received a signed photo card from him and Queen Camilla.
“I want to share with all my followers how excited I am to receive a letter and card of appreciation and gratitude from His Majesty King Charles the Third,” Peter said in the video, where she mentioned she was Pakistan’s first opera singer. “This arrived in response to my civic service of recording the British national anthem, ‘God Save the King.’”
“Being British-Pakistani, I feel so privileged to contribute my skill and voice to the British government’s public events and citizenship ceremonies,” she added.
Peter informed the British national anthem was recorded at the request of UK Government offices at Hastings Town Hall in East Sussex. The recording is now used across her adopted country for official government events.
Previously, she recorded “God Save the Queen” in 2018, making her the first Asian and the only Pakistani officially invited to undertake the task. Peter also received acknowledgment and gratitude from the late queen.
Born in Karachi, the opera singer told Arab News during her visit to Pakistan last year she used to sing in church choirs and began her Western classical journey, learning from Paul Knight, a disciple of Benjamin Britten, in London in the early 2000s after her family moved there.
Peter’s father, Zafar Francis, pioneered the Noor Jehan Arts Center in London, which was opened by British superstar Sir Cliff Richard in 1998.
She is the director of the performing arts center and teaches both Western and Pakistani classical music there.
She said her work in Britain was projecting “a positive image of Pakistan.”


Skipper Jos Buttler the bedrock as England set Pakistan 184 to win T20

Updated 25 May 2024
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Skipper Jos Buttler the bedrock as England set Pakistan 184 to win T20

  • Buttler smashed 84 off 51 balls, but his team failed to build on that and lost 5 wickets for 25 runs
  • Shaheen Shah Afridi took 3-36, as Pakistan try to build on their 2-1 win against Ireland this month

BIRMINGHAM: England captain Jos Buttler smashed 84 off 51 balls as the hosts set Pakistan a target of 184 to win the second T20 international at Edgbaston on Saturday.
Buttler was ably supported by 37 from Will Jacks and Jonny Bairstow’s 21 but England failed to build on the platform given to them by their skipper.
England were 144-2 with five overs to spare before Bairstow departed.
But five wickets fell for just 25 runs as Pakistan battled back to give the tourists a chance of chasing down the target.
Shaheen Shah Afridi was the pick of the bowlers, taking 3-36.
Jofra Archer will form part of the England bowling attack in his first home international appearance since 2020.
Fast bowler Archer has been beset by elbow injuries since his starring role in helping England win the 50-over World Cup in 2019.
However, the 29-year-old’s return could be a timely boost ahead of the T20 World Cup in the United States next month.
“Excited for Jofra, long road for him but looks great and looks fit,” Buttler said before the match.
Haris Rauf and Shadab Khan have been included for Pakistan, who are looking to build on a 2-1 series win over Ireland earlier this month.
The first T20 of the four-match series was washed out on Wednesday.
England: 1 Jos Buttler (capt/wk), 2 Phil Salt, 3 Will Jacks, 4 Jonny Bairstow, 5 Harry Brook, 6 Moeen Ali, 7 Liam Livingstone, 8 Chris Jordan, 9 Jofra Archer, 10 Adil Rashid, 11 Reece Topley
Pakistan: 1 Babar Azam (capt), 2 Saim Ayub, 3 Mohammad Rizwan (wk), 4 Fakhar Zaman, 5 Shadab Khan, 6 Azam Khan, 7 Iftikhar Ahmed, 8 Imad Wasim, 9 Shaheen Shah Afridi, 10 Haris Rauf, 11 Mohammad Amir