Pakistan town struggles with surge in HIV infections

Over 700, most of them children, are infected because of the ‘negligence and carelessness’ of a doctor

Doctors in a town in Pakistan are struggling to cope with a surge in patients infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, with nearly 700 cases since April, most of them children.

Health officials suspect the outbreak is linked to reused syringes and needles and improperly screened blood transfusions.

“For me it was impossible to imagine,” said Nazeer, recalling the day a doctor said his 16 month-old girl had tested positive for HIV.

“I told him ‘are you joking with me, how can she have HIV?’,” he said in his home in Ratodero, 480 km from Karachi, the capital of the southern province of Sindh.

His daughter is receiving treatment, he said, adding he did not know how she was infected.

Health officials say 681 people have tested positive for HIV in Ratodero, of whom 537 are children, since April.

More than 21,00 people have taken an HIV test at Ratodero’s only screening centre in a government hospital. Others have been tested at private clinics.

Tip of the iceberg

“I have identified the tip of the iceberg. This could be in the thousands, not hundreds,” said Dr. Imran Akbar Arbani, who operates a clinic in the nearby town.

About 60% of Ratodero patients were infected by reused needles and syringes, or through transfusions of blood that were not screened properly for HIV, said Dr Sikander Memon, head of the AIDS control programme in the province.

Police and doctors conducted an initial investigation and found that 123 HIV patients had been treated by one doctor before they were infected.

Dr Muzaffar Ghanghro was arrested on April 30 and has been charged with unintentional murder, police said.

“Negligence and carelessness of Dr. Muzaffar Ghanghro has been the prime reason behind the spread of HIV at the later stage,” the investigation team said in a report.

Imtiaz, a labourer, said he had taken his three children to Ghangro because there was no pediatrician in town. All three became infected with HIV. “He applied the same drip on 50 children without changing the needle,” he said.

Pakistan has some 1,63,000 HIV and AIDS patients.

At Pakistan’s request, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have sent a team of experts to the area.

The government has ordered 50,000 HIV screening kits and is setting up three treatment centres.

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