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Rising Risk of HIV in Pakistan

With 70 percent of the world’s opium produced in Pakistan, it seems almost inevitable that “an estimated 6.7 million adults have used drugs in the past year.”

In the past, drug abuse did not burden Pakistan to this extent. Nearly 30 years ago, the government confined poppy production to the Federally Administrated Tribal Areas and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. This greatly reduced the production of poppy, from nearly “800 tons in 1980, to nine tons by 1999.”

However, the Pakistani borders became more vulnerable. Today, 40 percent of the global opium supply travels through Pakistan to reach its final destination. Cesar Guedes represents the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and reports on the rising drug abuse in Pakistan.

According to Guedes, Pakistan drug traffickers have now cultivated a profitable local market within their own nation; addiction reaches all ages from teenagers to the elderly. As many as 4 million Pakistanis regularly use hashish. The fluid borders exacerbate the issue, with high poppy cultivation in nearby Afghanistan. This provides Pakistanis with a steady source of heroin.
Additional challenges include abject poverty and severely limited addiction treatment programs. Though more than 4 million Pakistanis would benefit from a regulated drug treatment program, the Express Tribune reports “just 1,990 beds available [in Pakistan] for drug treatment… are able to cater to less than 30,000 drug users a year.”

The rising tide of drug abuse in this country has an additional consequence: the spread of HIV/AIDS. Intravenous drug use ranks considerably high in Pakistan, “with 430,000 people estimated to be injecting drugs,” reports Mussadaq of the Express Tribune.

“IDUs [injecting drug users] contract HIV by sharing infected syringes. We are afraid that HIV/AIDS can spread to the general population through them,” claims Syed Mohammad Javid, manager of the National AIDS Control Programme (NACP).

Previously, no syringe exchange program has existed in Pakistan and the sharing of contaminated syringes continues to be rampant. 73 percent of those currently injecting drugs report sharing syringes.

Yet today, the United Nations works in cooperation with other relief agencies to implement the needle exchange program. At this time, however, it remains a pilot program for Peshawar. If the results are positive, the UN and its partners could expand to include other Pakistani cities.

Pakistan has reported 9,000 confirmed cases of HIV/AIDS, according to Javid. The World Health Organization predicts that the number is actually much higher, estimating as many as 100,000 confirmed cases.

In response, the United Nations AIDS country coordinator for Pakistan and Afghanistan, Oussama Tawil, has lead an effort to establish more treatment centers in the region. “UNAIDS is in the process of establishing 20 wards for detoxification and rehabilitation of IDUs,” reports Tawil.

The program aims to enlist local nongovernmental organizations in locating drug abusers for detoxification. Moreover, the UN aims to diagnose and treat those infected with HIV in Pakistan. Overall, the program aims to stem this rampant use of contaminated syringes and treat those who suffered from the practice. To do so, health professionals should treat addicts with empathy rather than judgment. Treating just one addict  helps to protect those across the country from contracting HIV.

– Ellery Spahr

Sources: Inter Press Service, The Express Tribune

Photo: Flickr