494 Children Are HIV Positive Amid Outbreak in Pakistani City

In Larkana, Pakistan, on May 9, 2019, a paramedic takes a blood sample from a baby for a HIV test. The government is offering screenings in the wake of an HIV outbreak.
Rizwan Tabassum /AFP/Getty Images

This spring, a number of parents in Ratodero, a poor neighborhood in the city of Larkana in southern Pakistan, were worried about their children.

Their kids had been running a fever for a while. Their parents had been taking them to a clinic run by Dr. Muzaffar Ghangharo, a pediatrician. But the youngsters weren’t responding to treatments to bring down the fever.

In late April, some of the parents wanted another opinion. So they took their children to a different medical center in Larkana, where they were seen by Dr. Imran Arbani.

Because a long-running fever is one of the symptoms of HIV, Dr. Arbani suggested testing the children for the virus as a precaution.

The results were devastating. On April 24, the first test results came in: One of the children was HIV positive. There were 14 more positive test results, according to an op-ed written by Muhammad Nauman Siddique, the province’s deputy commissioner, and published on May 20.

The children ranged in age from 2 months to 8 years.

That was the start of the current HIV outbreak in the Sindh province of Pakistan.

It’s a disease that is all too familiar in this part of the country. The province accounts for nearly half of the 150,000 HIV positive cases in Pakistan, according to UNAIDS. In this particular outbreak, blame was initially focused on Dr. Ghangharo but the tragedy is now being linked to major failures in the health-care system, including reuse of syringes and lack of standards for blood transfusions.

After news of the infected children broke on TV, “there was panic, hue and cry,” Masood Bangash, a district police officer, told NPR. Parents gathered outside Dr. Ghangharo’s clinic and other sites in Larkana to express their anger.

The deputy commissioner of Larkana’s municipal government called for free screenings for anyone who was concerned. The parents of the HIV positive children demanded that Dr. Ghangharo be screened as well.

As of May 20, more than 10,000 children and adults have been screened as part of the ongoing government effort. In total, 607 were HIV positive: 113 adults and 494 children. According to the authorities, in most cases the parents of these children are not HIV positive.

As for Dr. Ghangharo, he was found to be HIV positive.

“And here is when it was suspected that he was the source of spreading HIV in their kids through bad practices,” says Bangash.

Dr. Ghangharo says he was not previously aware of this status. and the police said that he believes he might have been infected from a blood transfusion he received after an automobile accident several years ago.

Because of the outcry, the doctor was arrested on April 30 based on what’s known as a “first information report” in the Pakistani judicial system — in this case, complaints from the parents about a possible offense. He is being held in jail until an investigation of the matter is completed.

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SOURCE: NPR, Benazir Samad