Pakistan has been slow to respond to HIV/AIDS, and for years in the 1990s was in almost complete denial of its in-country existence. There are now believed to be around 91,000 people with HIV/AIDS but only 10-12,000 of those are registered with the government. Somewhat belatedly, the government has submitted a proposal to the Global Fund seeking $11 million in order to continue the fight against HIV/AIDS; and a further $8 million from UNAIDS to determine the exact numbers of people living with the disease. There may be as many as 80,000 people who are infected, untreated and capable of spreading infection wherever they are sexually active or within drug-using communities that share needles to inject themselves.
The chronic lack of preparedness to combat HIV/AIDS is exemplified by the fact that only Sindh has an HIV Control Law, and with the devolution of health budgets under the 18th Amendment, HIV/AIDS is not high on provincial agendas. The almost complete absence of sex education for young people means that most of them go into adulthood unaware of the risks of having unsafe sex, and sexually transmitted diseases are easily spread on the back of widespread ignorance. Aside from the cultural conservatism, the cost of treating HIV/AIDS is high. It is hoped that the money from the Global Fund will help to support those suffering and their families, with free food and education to the children of victims of the illness. The UNAIDS office in Islamabad is planning to introduce community-based HIV testing that will target ‘hot-spots’ known to be used by intravenous drug users and sex workers. All of this has the feel of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. Years of denial allowed HIV/AIDS to gain a foothold, there was no developed strategy of prevention and the price is now being paid. Globally, HIV/AIDS is in a slow retreat as preventative strategies gradually alter behaviours and mindsets, but there is no such retreat in Pakistan. We wish this latest initiative well.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 7th, 2015.
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