Lahore         -        When the HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) enters the body the person is identified as HIV positive. The virus remains dormant for a few years and when slowly and gradually it begins to weaken the body’s immune system, the resulting condition is called AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome).

The patients remain oblivious of the HIV presence in their body for years. They seem perfectly healthy. During this period, the carrier can transfer the virus to others. The symptoms appear only after the gradual weakening of the cells helping the body fight infection, and this may take five to ten years.  Common symptoms of AIDS include weight loss, chronic fever, appearance of swelling or protrusion on different body parts, digestive disorders, diagnosis of pneumonia or tuberculosis, or both, skin problems etc.

While it is not hereditary, the transmission of HIV from one person to another may take place mostly through unsafe sexual practices and multiple usages of needles or syringes in blood supply. It is very important to always use disposable syringes and to destroy it after use.

It can be transferred from an affected mother to her child also but it can be controlled through medicines. However it does not transmit through casual contacts, such as a handshake, hugging, use of shared crockery, and presence in the same room or use of the same toilet.

Unsafe blood transfusion practices are a major contributor to HIV proliferation. Prior inspection of the quality of blood must be made a standard operating procedure across the board to help ensure safe blood supply. The use of disposable needles and syringes along with appropriate and timely sterilisation of non-disposable medical equipment can greatly help reduce HIV transmission in healthcare setups.

Awareness campaigns is aimed at promoting safe sexual practices under religious obligations and the law. Such knowledge can bring about the much-needed behavioural change, which will go a long way towards limiting the number of new HIV cases.

For new HIV carriers, medicines are available which helps reduce the risk of infection in early stages, thus minimising their chances of developing AIDS. However, so far, there is no medicine available that can cure HIV. Once HIV begins to insidiously incapacitate cells that fight diseases and infections, it becomes unstoppable. However, research and experimentation are underway to find a definitive treatment in this regard.

There are however, some medicines which are very effective and help reduce the quantity of the virus in the body to the extent that it can no longer harm the carrier.These are called antiretroviral medicines which interfere in HIV’s operations to disrupt its lifecycle and functioning, thus preventing replication and growth of the virus. One tablet containing three antibiotics, these medicines have proven their effectiveness around the world. Apart from their primary job – to keep the virus under check and reduce its capacity to cause harm – these medicines provide an additional benefit: they significantly reduce the likelihood of HIV transmission as well.

Though a lot of work is being done in Pakistan in this regard but still, Pakistan is among the few countries where the trajectory of the HIV pandemic is still rising. According to 2018 statistics, 160,000 Pakistanis were infected with HIV, with another 22,000 being diagnosed anew. This is an alarming figure because in many countries, 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 that provide antiretroviral medicines to those needing pre-exposure and post-exposure prophylaxes. Under this programme, there are twenty centres across the country that provides free-of-cost care.

HIV diagnosis requires a combination of two tests: the initial test and confirmation test. The latter is an important follow-up examination that helps validate or invalidate the findings of the former test, depending on the person’s current condition. These tests are available in Pakistan at a nominal cost and it is recommended to get these tests done only from authentic laboratories.

People with HIV around the world in general and in Pakistan, in particular, feel reluctant to disclose their disease. 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. However, today, when there is widespread awareness around HIV coupled with the availability of effective medication, a person with HIV must report their disease and receive treatment, for it is cheap, effective, and, most importantly, it saves your life and that of others.

The writer is Shaukat Khanum Hospital CEO