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Over 500 children have been infected with HIV within one Pakistani city, marking an unprecedented outbreak that has found a local doctor guilty of criminal medical negligence and exposed extensive failings across the province’s health system.

The outbreak in the city of Rato Dero in the southeastern Sindh province was first identified when a pediatrician noticed enduring fevers in eight children in early April. Subsequent testing revealed all eight were HIV-positive. A screening program, set up following speculation of a possible outbreak, has since registered almost 700 HIV-positive individuals.

"Some 681 people, of which 537 were children from two to 12 years of age, had been tested positive for HIV until yesterday in Rato Dero," Pakistan’s special health advisor Zafar Mirza told reporters in the capital of Islamabad on Sunday.

Last week, local doctor Muzaffar Ghangharo, who had treated various children in the weeks before they got sick, was arrested on suspicion of purposely infecting his young patients with the virus.

On Thursday, he was relieved of the charge but pronounced guilty of criminal medical negligence.

While blame was initially focused on Ghangharo, many locals have now criticized the region’s overall health care system for failing to stop the spread of infection.

National Public Radio (NPR) reports the province is home to a frightening number of untrained individuals who work as cheap medical practitioners in lieu of adequate, affordable state health care. The unqualified health workers, of whom there are an estimated 270,000 province-wide, have been known to reuse syringes and lack proper methods for blood transfusions.

"For the sake of saving money, these quacks will inject multiple patients with a single syringe. This could be the main cause of the spread of HIV cases," said Sikandar Memon, provincial program manager of the Sindh Aids Control Program, according to Al Jazeera.

The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS claim new HIV infections in Pakistan has increased 45% since 2010 — the highest rate of increase throughout Asia. In 2017, 20,000 additional infections were reported.

Of the nation’s 150,000 HIV-positive citizens, almost half reside in Sindh province.

In an attempt to curb the mounting spread of infection, the Government of Sindh has announced — with assistance from the World Health Organization and United Nations — that they will now implement extensive public education campaigns, offer free ongoing HIV screenings, establish three new treatment centers, and close unlicensed medical offices.

According to NPR, 147 medical clinics have already been shut down in the past three weeks.


Defeat Poverty

Over 500 Children Have Contracted HIV in One Pakistani City

By Madeleine Keck  and  Pia Gralki