World Aids Day
COMMUNITIES MAKE THE DIFFERENCE:
WAYS YOU CAN FIGHT HIV/AIDS IN PAKISTAN
When healthcare systems struggle to cope, communities take the lead to make change happen. All around the World, communities have played an integral role in the fight against HIV/AIDS by promoting prevention, demanding access to life-saving treatment, demanding harm reduction and advocating changes in laws that discriminate. Therefore, the theme for this year’s World AIDS Day is “Communities Make the Difference” to recognize the efforts of communities in the fight against AIDS at all levels. We spoke to Dr. Faisal Sultan, our CEO and Consultant Physician Medicine and Infectious Diseases, to learn more about HIV and AIDS.
THE ALARMING SITUATION
Unfortunately, Pakistan is among the few countries in Asia where HIV is on the rise. In 2018, 160,000 Pakistanis were living with HIV, including 22,000 newly diagnosed cases. This is an alarming figure because many countries, such as India, Bangladesh, and Thailand, where HIV arrived before Pakistan, have been reporting a gradual decline in the number of new cases for the past few years. The government has introduced National AIDS Control Programme on federal as well as provincial levels to provide Anti-retroviral therapy or ART to those needing pre-exposure and post-exposure prophylaxes. Under this programme, there are twenty centres across the country that provide free-of-cost care. However, the most recent HIV outbreak in Larkana in April 2019 that affected more than 800 children, is a reminder to all that the communities must play their role and step up to help prevent a similar outbreak in the future.
PROTECT YOURSELF AND YOUR LOVED ONES
HIV is preventable and treatable, but incurable at this point in time. The communities can take the lead in running awareness campaigns while respecting the sub-culture of marginalized communities. Reusing unclean needles and syringes can transmit HIV among adults and children, as what happened in Ratodero, Larkana, and therefore, you have to ensure that needles and syringes are sealed before usage and that these are properly disposed off afterwards. Any activity involving direct contact with your body fluids (use of razors, blood transfusions, unsafe sexual practices, etc.) can pose the risk of HIV transmission and should be avoided or done only in a safe manner. To prevent HIV transmission from an HIV infected mother to her child, you must ensure the mother is given required medication for her child’s safety. If you are a part of the population that is at a greater risk of getting HIV, such as intravenous drug users, you can consult your physician to opt for Pre-exposure prophylaxes (PrEP) and you will be given regular medications to develop a strong immunity against HIV.
GET TESTED & DON’T LOSE HOPE
Unlike in the past, HIV treatment is available now but testing is the only way to know for sure if you are HIV positive and need treatment. HIV diagnosis requires two tests: the initial test and the confirmation test to validate the findings. Testing for HIV is easy and there are many hospitals where you can test for HIV including Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital and Research Centre that has qualified infectious disease doctors to provide consultation and treatment for patients with immune suppression and HIV. The earlier the HIV treatment is started, the better the outcome. If you are diagnosed with HIV, do not lose hope. People can live long and healthy lives with early detection of HIV and proper treatment and care. Many Pakistanis who have been taking medicine for HIV for several years now are gainfully employed and living healthy lives. If taken consistently, the current treatment regimen can also prevent onward HIV transmission.
START A CONVERSATION
There are two reasons a disease becomes a taboo: incurability and involvement of sexual activity. When HIV became a global pandemic a few decades ago, it met both the aforementioned criteria, becoming a source of social censure for its carriers. As there is no vaccine yet for HIV, education is the best preventive measure. Key community members like parents, teachers, religious leaders, local leaders, media personnel, government- all of us can play a role in starting a conversation on HIV education and prevention, and in reducing fear, isolation, stigma and discrimination. If you know a friend or neighbor living with HIV, show them your care, respect and acceptance so they will not be afraid to seek life-saving treatment.