The need of the hour is to educate people about HIV/AIDS to remove unnecessary fear related to the disease
By Saadia Salahuddin
When Nazir Masih was first detected with HIV/AIDS virus in 1990, a doctor from the Ministry of Health visited his home, wrote 'AIDS virus carrier' on a paper and asked the family to get it laminated and make Nazir wear it around his neck. A journalist from a leading newspaper of the country came to him with a photographer, said the Health Secretary had sent him, took Nazir's and his family members' photographs, drew a sketch of his home and left. He did not explain why he was doing all this. Nazir did not have enough courage to question them then. "When they had gone I thought I would go to the secretary next day and ask him why the pictures were taken. I did not get a chance to go to him. The next day all the pictures and the sketch of our house appeared in the daily morning paper."
This is not all. "Much later when my wife fell ill and was hospitalised, the doctors did not treat her for 24 hours because someone from the staff said she was Nazir Masih's wife and must be an AIDS patient. It was after we got her tested for AIDS from Shaukat Khanum Memorial Trust Hospital, which confirmed her as HIV negative, that the hospital staff started her treatment." Nazir Masih, certainly a brave man, is a role model now and advises people. He has his own NGO which works for the AIDS/HIV victims. And the medical practitioners are also more aware and informed now.
Asim is another HIV/AIDS virus carrier for the last eight years. He first learnt about it when he was tested before Haj. At the last moment the authorities told him he could not go. When asked why, they said they had lost his blood sample. Eventually, on much insistence they told him he had AIDS. "For 8-10 days I took nothing. I would tell my nieces and nephews to stay away from me. My cousins who were my partners in business, stopped seeing me. When I was hospitalised, my best friend stood ten feet away from me and enquired how I was feeling." At this Asim's eyes welled with tears and he found it hard to speak.
Fortunately, Asim has a loving, understanding family and, above all, a wonderfully supportive wife who married him knowing he had HIV. She is now six months pregnant and HIV negative, which says that the child is also safe.
Yes, the virus does not necessarily transmit to the spouse and even if it does, the possibility of transferring that to a child can be brought down to 5 percent through medicines. Taking medicines regularly is a must. And once a person is detected with HIV/AIDS virus, he/she has to take medicines for life. But so do the high blood pressure and sugar patients.
The doctor emphasise the importance of taking drugs regularly or the virus keeps mutating. There is a possibility that researchers come up with a medicine which cures for life – may be in five years time. There is an estimation that 97,400 men and 30,000 women had AIDS in 2008 and 5,000 died because of it.
The HIV/AIDS virus is not transmitted through handshake or a hug, socialisation at public and workplace, by visiting patients at hospital or home, using public telephone, utensils at hotels or restaurants, using common lavatories, taking bath in swimming pool, sneezing or coughing and insect bites. There is no need to separate their plates or glass. HIV transfer ratio is very low as compared to Hepatitis and this is not a genetic disease.
It can only be transferred through body fluids; unsafe sex, transfusion of unscreened blood, used syringe or taking drugs through shared syringes. HIV virus can also enter the body through used or blood-stained instruments.
Only those AIDS patients are coming to the fore who cannot buy the medicines themselves. Only 2000 patients of HIV/AIDS are being treated in government hospitals when there should have been 20,000. But it is not a failure on the part of the government, it is a failure on the part of the society to create an environment where people can come out and speak about the issue with others. There are four centres in Lahore, one in Sargodha and another one is being opened in DG Khan within a month. Doctors are being trained and the government is aiming to open 8-9 centres for HIV/AIDS patients in Punjab alone. The government has allocated six billion rupees for AIDS. The graph of people dying from HIV/AIDS has come down steadily since 2005.
The test that detects the virus is called PCR (polymerase chain reaction) and costs Rs 12,000. A person with HIV virus may not need medicine for two years. HIV carrier means that the virus is there but may not have developed into AIDS. The most infective period is the first six months.
"Most at risk population (MARPs) are male sex workers, male hijras, female sex workers and injecting drug users (IDUs). AIDS is affecting women and girls in increasing numbers, which is transmitted to them by men who are heterosexual. Truckers, jail inmates and street children (scavengers) are also at risk. Also, army personnel and those who stay away from home for long are considered vulnerable. Among IDUs, the percentage of HIV/AIDS victim is 20.8 percent. At this the doctors warn against going for injections when a patient has the choice of taking drugs through mouth," says Dr Nasir Sarfraz.
Asim says health practitioners need to be educated on how to treat HIV/AIDS patients. Doctors are taught about it in the final year of education. Lack of proper information has a damaging effect on both patients and people in general. The AIDS Control Programme, Punjab, has been distributing posters among the masses lately to educate people about HIV/AIDS to remove unnecessary fear which builds due to lack of information.