PAKISTAN: First association of people living with HIV/AIDS launched

The United Nations Joint Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) has launched Pakistan's first association of people living with HIV/AIDS.

"So far only a few individual NGOs with limited capacity were providing support to people living with HIV/AIDS, but there was no association in Pakistan, whereas most of the countries in the region have established their associations a while ago," said Fawad Haider, a UNAIDS programme officer.

The overall objective of the association is to provide a platform for the Association of People Living With HIV/AIDS (PLWHA) to voice their concerns and to build their capacities to fight against the stigma and discrimination through knowledge of the virus.

The South Asian nation is currently classified as in the 'concentrated epidemic' stage by the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNAIDS, where the number of new cases of HIV infection continues to rise.

According to Pakistan's National AIDS Control Programme (NACP), a total of some 3,393 HIV/AIDS cases have been reported, including 346 cases of full-blown AIDS. However, estimates of the number of those infected are as high as 85,000, according to WHO and UNAIDS.

Pakistan is considered at 'high-risk' for the spread of HIV into the general population due to multiple factors.

These include a large illiterate population, a high number of migrant workers, limited safety standards for blood transfusions, an increasing number of injecting drug users and a highly mobile refugee population.

In Pakistan, youth make up the major chunk of HIV/AIDS vulnerability, with 60 percent of the population aged below 25.

"Some 32 million within the age group of 10-19 are highly vulnerable, since according to global trends, young people are becoming sexually active at a very young age," Dr Asma Bukhari, head of NACP, explained.

"The newly established association would promote and advocate for an improved access to treatment, especially antiretroviral (ARVs) therapy and care and support for PLWHA [people living with HIV/AIDS]," Haider said.

Pakistani health authorities have recently started providing AIDS treatment services through eight care centres across the country. However, the scope of coverage in the face of a concentrated HIV epidemic remains limited, analysts say.

To boost HIV/AIDS awareness and educate young people to help them recognise their personal vulnerability, NACP has recently started interactive theatre programmes, including live street theatre. "We are also about to start youth programmes on FM radios," said Bukhari.

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