“It is bad enough that people are dying of AIDS, but no one should die of ignorance”- Elizabeth Taylor.
AIDS is an absolutely devastating and tragic plague that is taking its toll on people around the globe. The World Health Organization estimates that since the start of the epidemic, more than 25 million people worldwide have died from this infection. This can be attributed to the fact that anything related to sexual transmission is still considered taboo in many societies across the world. Sex, as a topic in such societies, is expected to be hushed and never discussed in public. There is still a level of embarrassment associated with the topic, which is why people are not comfortable in admitting their extramarital affairs and sex practices as they feel this would make others discriminate against them and alienate them from society. It is our responsibility to remove such misconceptions and empower individuals to report the disease and get themselves frequently screened, in order to reduce the risk of transmission to otherwise healthy beings.
Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV); a lentivirus (member of the retrovirus family) causes AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome), which is the final stage of the HIV disease that wreaks havoc on the immune system. The virus takes over cell mediated immunity and destroys the receptors of T helper cells that activate and direct other immune cells.The body can then fall prey to life threatening opportunistic infections and cancers like, Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (cancer of the lymph nodes), herpes and dementia.
A person is diagnosed with AIDS if they are HIV-positive and have a CD4 cell count below 200 cells/mm3. It may also be diagnosed if a person develops one of the opportunistic infections and cancers that occur more commonly in people with an HIV infection. In many cases people may remain asymptomatic for over ten years but once the disease hits, patients present with chills, fever, sweats (particularly at night), swollen lymph glands, weakness and weight loss. Currently there is no cure available, however, treatments are under development (best known to date is HAART- Highly active anti retroviral therapy).
Diagnosis of HIV is done by serological and molecular techniques (ELISA and Western Blot). Under the governance of the National AIDS Control Program in Pakistan, testing facilities are available at the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences (PIMS) and Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (AFIP) in Islamabad, Shaukat Khanam Memorial Hospital in Lahore, as well as the Sindh Institute of Urology & Transplants (SUIT) and Aga Khan Hospital in Karachi.
Currently, the epidemic of HIV/AIDS is not only established, but there is also a threat of its expanded outbreak in the country. One major reason is that our population is engaging in high-risk practices (such as unsafe blood transfusion), with low awareness of HIV/AIDS. While such unsafe practices should be avoided at all costs, it should be noted that casual contact such as hugging, getting bitten by mosquitoes, participating in sports or touching items that were touched by an infected person does not culminate in the disease. HIV/AIDS is instead, transferred through the blood, semen, vaginal fluid, pre-ejaculate, or breast milk of an infected individual. Knowing this difference is key in our effort to prevent the disease as well as treat those who have AIDS as normal persons, rather than the untouchables most people make them out to be.
Pakistan is at high risk for an HIV/AIDS epidemic due to the presence of several socioeconomic conditions conducive to the spread of HIV including, poverty, low levels of education and high unemployment. The major core groups which are considered as high risk factors for HIV/AIDS transmission are IDU’s (Intravenous Drug Users) and their spouse, male and female sex workers, migrants ,truck drivers, minors, prisoners, unsafe and invasive medical practices, barber shops, beauty salons and vertical transmission(from mother to infant).
Furthermore, our youth suffers the highest risk due to their curiosity about sex and drugs. Therefore, it is imperative that counseling of parents and children is done in this regard. Anti-viral treatment should be made accessible and those in leadership and the government should come forward to initiate awareness campaigns targeted at preventing the spread of this virus in our community. On this day, let us pledge to ensure safe sex practices and take measures to save the future of Pakistan.