Why Are Children in Pakistan Testing Positive for HIV?
Pakistan is a mostly Muslim country between Afghanistan and India in South Asia. The country gained independence in 1947 and the government operates as a parliamentary democracy. In recent years, the country has adopted Sunni Islam’s essence, with Northern Pakistan facilitating a sanctuary for various Islamic extremist groups. The life expectancy in the country averages 67 years. In 2015, an Asian Development Bank report determined that 24.3% of Pakistanis live below the poverty line and UNAIDS claimed that 190,000 Pakistani are HIV positive. The organization also stated that the number of deaths from HIV cases has increased by 385% since 2010, with only 12% of patients receiving treatment. Unfortunately, the number of children in Pakistan with HIV has been significant.
Recent HIV Outbreak
Between April and July 2019, medical professionals diagnosed 735 children in Pakistan with HIV. The World Health Organization (WHO) has labeled the epidemic as a Grade Two Emergency. This implies a moderate approach to combating the problem since, according to WHO, Pakistan is one of the lowest spending countries when it comes to funding for health. Pakistan utilizes only 3% of its GDP for healthcare, whereas its neighbor, Afghanistan, allots 10%. Per person, Pakistan spends less than $45 on annual healthcare.
With the COVID-19 pandemic, many essential health issues have received neglect. In September 2020, Lancet Global Health constructed an investigation around how the pandemic has affected other health crises. In its findings, reports determined that deaths for HIV have increased by 10% since the beginning of the pandemic. The medical system has been under stress due to the pandemic, leading to a decrease in medical support for HIV. During this time, a local reporter named Gulbahar Shaikh, who had been covering a story in Ratodero around this time, decided to have his children tested to be safe. He was reportedly stunned when his daughter, Rida, came back positive for HIV.
In November 2019, cases of HIV-positive children in Pakistan started to emerge in Ratodero, a city just north of Larkana. In fact, reports stated that 1,132 children had HIV in Ratodero. As soon as possible, the local government sent experts to respond. During their investigations, it came to light that many of the patients did not have infected parents, which set off a red flag to officials. They later found that many of the infected children saw a doctor named Muzaffar Ghanghro. He was a cheap, in-town physician working primarily with children. Finding this, officials made Ghanghro obtain a test for HIV too. Even when his results came back positive for HIV, he denied the results.
The officials found Ghanghro fully responsible for the increase in outbreaks within children in Ratodero, and police arrested him. He spent about two months in jail but the pediatrician has not received any charges.
In 2019, $6.3 million went into funding investigations for children in Pakistan with HIV, resulting in the shutting down of 300 medical facilities in Ratodero. However, unlicensed private clinics still function on “nearly every block,” and several facilities do not even have a place for physicians to wash their hands.
Save the Children
In 2020, UNAIDS and the United Nations HIV program reported that 2.8 million individuals under 20 were living with HIV. Additionally, over 50% of those individuals were under 10 years old.
An organization fighting for the betterment of children named Save the Children works in Pakistan. Together with the National Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Network, the organization provides reputable health facility managers to implement more humane health responses. The Mothers, Newborn and Child Health Program (MNCH) is an integral part of what Save the Children offers for healthcare. The program provides improved services from households to hospitals to moms and their children. The program’s focus is on the already existing primary healthcare facilities within areas of poverty in Pakistan. The program ensures a healthier emergency and medical experience for children in Pakistan.
Save the Children also has an initiative explicitly targeting individuals with HIV/AIDS. The project consists of providing more support to the physicians practicing in Pakistan. This program provides care to People Living with HIV (PLHIV) through Community and Home-Based Care services. The service actively raises awareness on transmission causes along with referring cases to further investigations. Together with the other efforts, Pakistan hopes to change the trend of rising HIV numbers.
– Libby Keefe