For 45-year-old ZG* things turned upside down in 2015, when amid his preparations to go to Saudi Arabia to fill a telecommunications sector vacancy, his medical tests suggested some anomaly. The medical board kept calling him over for new tests or to repeat the previous ones to ascertain what was wrong, which was later found out to be the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV).
More than my life, I was concerned about my wife and kids because what will society tell them how I contracted this virus, and how will they see me, ZG recalled the appalling memories still etched to his mind like it was yesterday.
“People think me abominable and deserving of hate,” said ZG, a Karachi resident who tested HIV positive, and had been on medication for past eight years.
He added that people simply assumed I either went to sex workers or was indulging in homosexuality myself because in Pakistan people have this habit of moral policing.
With an estimated 210,000 people of all ages and gender, living with HIV in Pakistan, the government wants more and more people get screening done, so the ones diagnosed can be started on the anti-retroviral therapy or ART. Once their treatment starts, they can lead lives like normal people and even maintain sexual intimacy with their partners and plan kids without having to fear transmission of HIV.
However, the recent misreported HIV spread news, based on misinterpreted data, led to a rise in humiliation and discrimination against the “HIV-positive people who already suffer the dejection of being stereotyped of having ‘bad characters’ by the society”, said Dr Sameera Zehra, in-charge HIV control program, Civil Hospital, Karachi.
HIV news struck the country with fear when a small town of Sindh province, Ratodero, was found to be heaving with children living with the virus back in 2019. In a matter of days, after a child was diagnosed with HIV, number of tests were conducted across the city with little of 300,000 population and it emerged in just first phase of these tests that 11 children under the age of 10 had HIV.
According to World Health Organisation, H.I.V., tuberculosis and malaria cause more than 2.3 million deaths a year, globally, and poorer countries suffer bigger chunks of this number. But since recent years, two-thirds of the world’s HIV patients have begun taking ART and are now safe.
In Pakistan, on the other hand, HIV comes with a caveat. A preconceived notion(s) of bad character. One can start on the treatment and lead a better life but one is afraid how one would face the world, one’s closest of family and friends, once the news of them being HIV positive is out.
On World AIDS Day this year, while doctors celebrated that more among the estimated HIV patients have been screened and started on treatment, some misinterpreted it by reporting that HIV is fast spreading and attributed it to “increasing vulgarity and homosexuality” in Pakistan.
Moreover, they even had “experts” comment and affirm the claims.
The reports hijacked the efforts towards curing the stereotyped virus, said Dr Muhammad Umair, in-charge National Aids Control Program.
“Any agenda-based reporting on HIV serves to further stigmatize already marginalized sections of this society.
I call this phenomenon double-stigma.” First you throw the people who are transgenders, drug abusers and sex-workers out of your houses, and then when they become key-population of HIV and even contract the virus due to extreme vulnerability, you discriminate against them in health facilities, too.
We need people to get themselves screened but unethical reporting of facts with prejudice and notions goes against all our efforts of raising awareness, said Dr Ershad Kazmi of Sindh’s CDC program.
The more screenings we have, the closer we get to starting all 210,000 people, estimated to have this virus, on ART, he said.
I have data that suggests that people who inject drugs (PWIDs) top the key population charts and barely two per cent, among all the HIV+ population is the male sex workers, said Dr Kazmi who denounced societal taboos that stereotype people.
Instead of taking due steps to discourage PWIDs and helping their rehabilitation, entire nation wants to moral police all HIV patients because some bigot said it and he has a following, he added.
No one dies of HIV now, said Dr Faisal Mehmood, Infection disease consultant at AKUH.
We have HIV+ coming to us who contracted the virus from a sub-standard dental procedure, or getting a jab from somewhere, he said.
“Once you start on its treatment, the HIV virulence gets suppressed within 90 days and then you can engage in sexual activity and even conceive a child without transmitting into them this virus. Mothers can also breastfeed them.
*Initials have been used to hide character’s identity