WHO team arrives in Karachi to investigate HIV incidence in Sindh

KARACHI: An international team of experts from the World Health Organisation (WHO) arrived here on Tuesday to support the response to an outbreak of HIV in northwestern Sindh at a request of the federal government, officials in the Sindh health ministry said.

Director general of health Dr Masood Solangi, who received the team at the airport, said the WHO team would visit Larkana to meet officials from the Sindh health ministry and other experts.

A meeting between officials of the Sindh government and the WHO team would be held on Wednesday (today), a day before the latter would leave for Larkana to witness the havoc created by the rampant incidence of HIV, particularly in its Ratodero town.

Sindh health minister Dr Azra Pechuho, the health secretary and other officials will accompany the WHO team.

The outbreak was first reported on April 25, 2019, and a major HIV screening programme was started three days later. It was expanded on May 8, with additional health workers being deployed.

Testing is under way

According to a WHO spokesperson, so far more than 600 HIV cases have been identified. A majority of them are children and young people: more than half of those affected are children under the age of 5.

“This poses a particular challenge. Prior to this outbreak, there were just over 1,200 children diagnosed with HIV and [were] receiving antiretroviral treatment in the whole of Pakistan,” said the WHO official.

A recent report shared by the Sindh health ministry said a total of 707 persons had been diagnosed with HIV in Ratodero after screening of 24,227 people there. Some 580 of them, around 84 per cent, are children and the remaining 127 are adults.

On May 16 local authorities established a new antiretroviral treatment clinic for children in Larkana.

The WHO spokesperson said that key tasks for the WHO-led team would include ascertaining the source of the outbreak and controlling it; providing technical expertise, particularly in the areas of HIV testing, paediatric HIV treatment and family counseling; and ensuring adequate supplies of rapid diagnostic tests and antiretroviral medicines for both adults and children, as well as single-use needles and syringes.

The WHO mission includes experts in emergency response management, epidemiology, HIV clinical care, and infection prevention and control from WHO staff as well as the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network.

“The team will work closely with the ministry of health and partners, including the Aga Khan University, Pakistan’s Field Epidemiology & Laboratory Training Programme, UNAIDS and Unicef in Larkana,” said the WHO spokesperson.

Special assistant to prime minister for national health services Dr Zafar Mirza had written a letter to the WHO, requesting it to send a team of experts to Pakistan immediately to visit the areas reporting about HIV frequently.

Officials said it was the first visit of its kind by an inspection team of the WHO to investigate HIV incidence in the region.

Officials in the provincial health ministry said they were also looking into certain unverified reports about HIV cases being detected in nearby districts.