Low Levels of HIV/AIDS Awareness, Stigma Contributing to Spread of Disease in Pakistan
Low levels of awareness about HIV/AIDS and the social stigma associated with the disease are contributing to its spread in Pakistan, IRIN News reports. Pakistan's HIV prevalence is 0.1%, but cases of the disease are increasing among high-risk groups -- such as the country's 150,000 injection drug users and men who have sex with men -- according to new data. In addition, the stigma associated with these populations has kept most people from reporting their HIV-positive status. About 3,700 HIV/AIDS cases have been registered officially in the country since 1986, but the World Health Organization and UNAIDS say there are about 200,000 cases. The World Bank also says that limited surveillance and voluntary HIV/AIDS counseling and testing services, combined with a lack of education among health professionals and the general population, are contributing to the spread of the disease.
A survey released in April by the Punjab AIDS Control Programme found that 87% of people in Punjab province's eight districts had heard of HIV. Twenty-six percent of respondents said they were aware that HIV can be transmitted through risky sexual behavior; 23% said they knew that HIV can be transmitted by reusing needles; 6% said they knew that blood transfusions pose a risk; and 4% said they knew that condoms help prevent HIV. Some advocates have launched media campaigns and lobbied government officials in the country to help promote HIV/AIDS awareness. The government has adopted new awareness targets that seek to reach 25% of the population in each high-risk group -- including commercial sex workers, MSM and transgendered people -- by the end of 2007, with an ultimate target of 60% by 2010.
Akbar Babar, a private consultant who carried out the Punjab study, said that increased resources are needed to conduct an HIV/AIDS awareness campaign in the country. "We all know awareness campaigns are expensive, electronic media is expensive, but extremely poor levels of awareness about HIV and its transmission routes should convince policymakers that we need to allocate a lot more (resources) so that the media reports can be more intense," he said, calling for a significant boost in funds, particularly for television (IRIN News, 5/16).