By Ashfaq Yusufzai
PESHAWAR -- Militants in Pakistan and Afghanistan are hampering efforts to control HIV/AIDS in war-stricken Afghanistan, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) warns.
"Growing militancy in Afghanistan has been hampering efforts to track down suspected HIV/AIDS patients and provide them with counselling and symptomatic treatment in Pakistan," UNAIDS Country Director for Pakistan and Afghanistan Dr. Mamadou L. Sakho told Pakistan Forward July 11.
"We have traced about 1,000 cases in Afghanistan, but the number of patients could be far more than this if we reached and screened all of the vulnerable population," he said.
Pakistan saw the number of deaths from HIV/AIDS rise from 360 in 2005 to 1,480 in 2015, The Express Tribune reported in 2016, quoting an international study.
Pakistan and Afghanistan are exchanging information on HIV/AIDS because they have similar problems, such as intravenous drug users and immigrant workers deported from Middle Eastern countries after testing positive for the disease, Sakho said according to Dawn.
Pakistan can play a significant role in helping Afghanistan cope with the disease because it has better health facilities, he said, adding that political commitment on both sides of the border is key to success against HIV/AIDS.
"We have enlisted support of religious leaders in both countries to spread information about prevention in line of Islamic teachings and protect lives from the ailment," he said.
"We want strong and effective advocacy campaigns to inform the public about modes of transmission of the disease and to eliminate the stigma that causes the infected to fear having their names come out," he said.
The incidence of HIV/AIDS in Afghanistan is about 0.001%, but authorities fear it could snowball into a major public health issue if appropriate measures are not taken.
The problem is deteriorating law and order, which prevents health professionals from tracking down all cases and taking appropriate measures for their counselling and treatment.
More than 240 attacks against health facilities or medical personnel occurred in Afghanistan between January 2015 and December 2016, according to Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict, a global advocacy organisation.
"Targeted attacks on medical facilities have decimated Afghanistan's fragile health system, preventing many civilians from accessing lifesaving care," said Christine Monaghan, research officer at Watchlist and author of the March 2017 report, according to a Watchlist press release.
The Taliban and other anti-government groups were responsible for the majority of attacks, the report said.
These elements have "temporarily or permanently closed medical facilities throughout Afghanistan, damaged or destroyed facilities, looted medical supplies, stolen ambulances, and threatened, intimidated, extorted, detained and killed medical personnel", according to Watchlist.
Militancy has been the major cause of weakness in Afghanistan's healthcare system, Afghan Minister of Public Health Ferozuddin Feroz told Pakistan Forward.
"We have a lot of resources coming from multi-national donor agencies to stop the spread of HIV through tracking down suspected patients and building capacity of the health staff to cope with the problem, but militancy has hindered our plan," he said in an e-mail message.
Civil society organisations are willing to work with the ministry to provide technical expertise and to raise awareness among the families of the patients, Feroz said. Afghan religious leaders have pledged to support these efforts by advising their followers about the spread of the virus.
However, these efforts require peace and security to succeed, he said.
Taliban militants have been a stumbling block to healthcare initiatives in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, said Dr. Muhammad Zafar of Peshawar, former Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) director general of health.
"They have thwarted women health workers [from working] in Swat and FATA [the Federally Administered Tribal Areas] as well as in Afghanistan," he told Pakistan Forward. "They want to impose their own brand of Islam without caring for public health, especially that of women."
Pakistan has been offering free treatment to HIV-infected patients from Afghanistan.
"About 155 Afghan nationals are under treatment at the Antiretroviral Therapy Centre in Hayatabad Medical Complex [in Peshawar] because there is no such facility in Afghanistan," Dr. Ayub Roz, head of the KP AIDS Control Programme, told Pakistan Forward.
"Our co-operation with Afghanistan is part of the global strategy to control the spread of the ailment at the regional level and stop it from infecting the general population," he said.
"We are also at risk because of the Taliban's terrorism, which keeps efforts against HIV from being carried out properly," he said, adding that Afghan patients continually come to Pakistan.
"We need co-ordinated efforts to put the brakes on the spread of HIV and stop it from blowing up," Roz said.
Afghanistan needs strong and effective advocacy campaigns to control the disease, said Waris Noor, an Afghan national who is receiving treatment for HIV/AIDS in Peshawar.
"We need to inform the public about the modes of transmission of the disease and do away with the stigma," he told Pakistan Forward.
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