Islamabad - Akhter contracted the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) in 2002 when he was just 22. Even after the passage of 12 years his parents and other family members still don’t know that the blood running through his veins is infected with the virus. “I was processing my visa documents to go to Saudi Arabia to find some job when I was diagnosed with HIV when I underwent some medical tests. With the diagnosis the process halted in the middle and I could not go to abroad ever to pursue my dreams,” recalled Akhter who is now 34. He says he suffered in silence as he could not disclose about the disease even at home, fearing any abhorrence or discrimination from family members and society.

Twenty-five-years-old Sadaqat who found out at the age of 17 that he was HIV-positive also laments that he could feel that the nurse and other paramedic staff showed some hesitation while having his routine check-up when he was admitted at a local hospital in upper Punjab. Unlike dealing with other patients in the medical ward the staff used gloves and face mask when she came closer to him. “It was a kind of discrimination with me which I could feel very clearly,” Sadaqat stated.

Social stigma attached to the disease compels the patients to avoid disclosure of infection and access treatment.

According to an analysis, HIV/AIDS related mortality in Pakistan has increased by 11.47 per cent during the past 13 years while the mortality rate due to the disease has declined in rest of the world. The study obtained by The Nation has recorded 1.54 per cent decline in deaths due to the disease from 2000 to 2013 in the world.  It says that while globally the incidence of HIV/AIDS decreased by 3.92 per cent in the past 13 years, it has increased by 15.09 per cent in Pakistan.

The analysis from the ‘Global Burden of Disease Study 2013’ showed that since the adoption of UN Millennium Development Goal 6 by governments worldwide progress against the global burden of HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis has accelerated while it remained slow in Pakistan.

Dr Ejaz Ahmad Khan, assistant professor at the Health Services Academy, Islamabad, has co-authored the study from Pakistan conducted by Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, University of Washington.

The results of the study were very important to make evidence-based decisions in health by the countries as the study reveals high quality of evidence taking decade’s data into an account and by using robust methodology involving experts all over the globe, Dr Khan said.

The estimates show that 8,418.00 men were infected with HIV/AIDS up to 2013 and 1,721 deaths were reported due to the disease in Pakistan. When it comes to female incidences during the same period, 3,643 women contracted the virus and 701 lost lives due to AIDS.  This includes all ages. Limited testing and treatment facilities, lack of awareness among the general public and health professionals, and social stigma attached to the disease are some of the main causes of the transmission of virus, believes Asghar Satti, National Coordinator Association of People Living With HIV-Pakistan (APLHIV-Pakistan).

He thinks that media is one of the leading reasons for stigmatising the disease by attaching its transmission only to unprotected sex that is only one of the modes of transmission of virus while the main reasons of spread in Pakistan are the use of non-disposable syringes and unsafe blood transfusions.

According to estimates, the epidemic is expanding among injecting drug users, he shared, saying that “the mode of transmission of HIV and hepatitis C are the same but only HIV has been stigmatised by highlighting only one of the causes i.e. sexual transmission.”

According to a recent study of APLHIV carried out in seven countries of Asia Pacific Region, 48 per cent patients faced stigma and discrimination due to the disease that is the highest in the region. Satti said the HIV-positive community due to this stigma is subjected to blatant maltreatment, including exclusion from community gatherings and denial of medical and educational facilities, even the patients have been forced to change their residences. Satti further shared that as far as 71.8 per cent of those who had disclosed their HIV status faced social stigma, 49.2 per cent reported denial of medical services, 40 per cent faced housing instability and the children of 25 per cent were prevented/dismissed/suspended from attending schools according to the study conducted by the APLHIV.

The people need to make aware of its mode of transmissions, treatment and that they should hate the disease not the patients, Satti exhorted. “Now with anti-retroviral therapy (ART) medication patients can keep the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) at bay that causes AIDS and lead a normal healthy life without transmitting the infection to their partners, even have children without passing the virus to them.”

Akhter’s wife knows the very fact to which others remain oblivion as she is also an HIV-positive. Rashida was infected with the infection eight years ago. “In Jalalpur Jattan, district Gujrat, hundreds of people were transmitted the virus because of the criminal negligence of doctors who treated the patients with non-disposable syringes and non-sterilised equipment.  And I was one of that doomed community members,” she recalled.

It was HIV that brought Akhter and Rashida together. Rashida registered herself with a nongovernmental organisation working for people living with HIV with which Akhter was already registered where they met each other. Though they paid the price for others’ fault yet after treatment they are living a normal and blissful life.”