Lahore: Nazir Masih, 58, an HIV patient, faced severe reaction of society when he disclosed that he is an HIV carrier. But, he did not give up, and launched an organization to help AIDS patients in Pakistan and spread awareness in Pakistan about AIDS.
“I was forced to drop out of school at the age of 11 to be the breadwinner for my family. I tried working as a motor mechanic but earnings were low against long hours I left the job and tried my luck for working in Abu Dhabi with a few friends. I worked as a domestic worker for a rich Arab family and earned enough money to send home,” said Nazir Masih Founder and CEO at New Life Aids Control Society while talking to News Lens Pakistan.
Telling that tale about his misery, he said, “A few years later, I returned to Lahore and tied nuptial knot. I was earning well, but I could not afford to bring my wife to Abu Dhabi yet as I was living with two other men and I did not have appropriate accommodation for her,” said Nazir.
The absence of his wife in Abu Dhabi made it hard for Nazir to resist temptations, so he started visiting brothels to purchase ‘sex’ quite often. “I am certain that I contracted the virus from one of the women at the brothels,” he said.
Nazir came to learn about the disease in 1990 when he visited the Pakistan’s Embassy in Abu Dhabi for passport renewal and a visa extension which needs a compulsory medical test for visa applicants.
“I took the medical test as a formality and was diagnosed as HIV positive, thus leading to my deportation back to Pakistan,” said Nazir.
Shattered and heartbroken, Nazir was unable cope with the harsh reality. “My friends and neighbors avoided me. Our family would be treated with discrimination at all social gatherings; we were never invited to any get-togethers amongst family or friends. My entire family was being punished for my mistakes.”
He said that he felt like an outcast; which ultimately led to three failed suicide attempts on his part. “There were no medications or guidelines available for HIV carriers in Pakistan and my life was doomed in every sense,” Nazir recalled.
“Better late than never. With the help of a Christian charity organization in Lahore, I was able to gather enough courage to fight the HIV. I did that by initiating a platform called ‘New Life AIDS Control Society to raise awareness regarding medication and treatment for HIV carriers in Pakistan since 1999,” he said.
Nazir Masih said, “Over the years, through efforts at various fronts, I managed to introduce registered medicines for HIV in Pakistan in 2003. It also involved bringing 1400 other HIV carriers including men, women and children on a platform for treatment. I did this by going public with my HIV status and convincing their families get rid of fear of being rejected by society. I urged them to come forth and register themselves as HIV carriers for medication, hence making a breakthrough against the social stigma surrounding HIV carriers.”
According to USAIDS estimates, there are 94,000 persons in Pakistan living with HIV out of which 26,000 are women aged 15 and above, 2,100 children aged 0 to 14. There have been 2,800 deaths due to HIV in Pakistan.
According to Pakistan Global AIDS Response Progress Report, Pakistan’s HIV epidemic started in the 1980s when cases surfaced mostly amongst migrant workers employed abroad. This stage of low prevalence continued for the next two decades when suddenly surveillance study in Karachi exposed an epidemic amongst intravenous drug users in Karachi (26%) and Larkana (9.7%).
Pakistan is following a HIV epidemic trend having moved from low prevalence, high risk, to a more concentrated epidemic in the early 2000. Pakistan’s epidemic is primarily concentrated among two of key population groups; People who are involved in intravenous drug use with a national prevalence of 27.2% followed by transgender sex workers standing at 5.2% and then 1.6% involving male sex workers.
Fortunately, the prevalence in female sex workers is still low and accounts for 0.6% of the cases. According to Pakistan Global AIDS Response Progress Report, the epidemic trend is moving from low prevalence to high risk due to the steady increase in the number of persons who are injecting drugs regularly for non-therapeutic purposes and it has increased from 10.8% to 37.8%.
Similarly, bisexual behavior was reported by approximately 39.5% of the cases. Consistent condom use was very low at only 13% with paying partners, and even lower with non-paying partners at almost 11%. Transgender persons are considered at a higher risk for HIV in Pakistan.
Pakistan Global Aids Response Progress report further states that female sex workers reported an average of three clients a day. Condom use with clients was generally low as only 33.2% reported that they always used a condom with their clients and 20.6% reported consistent condom use with non-paying partners. Hence, HIV prevalence in female sex workers is still low at 0.6% as opposed to other concentrated high risk groups.
According to the stated report in antenatal clinics, the disease has not yet spread amongst the general population and showing little to no cases of HIV and rare STDs in population under study. Two other studies amongst men from the general population showed similar outcomes.
Though statistics show that HIV is a grave problem, the ban placed on condom advertisements in 2014 depicts how reluctant the Government of Pakistan is to address this serious issue because it is considered to be culturally inappropriate which makes it taboo to talk about HIV.
Another HIV carrier from Rahim Yar Khan, who wishes to remain anonymous, told News Lens that he was diagnosed with HIV at a medical camp in Lahore in 2010. The 29 year old man said that he became addicted to drugs when he was a teenaged boy. He used syringes to inject himself with drugs, which he would also share with fellow drug addicts. After being diagnosed with HIV positive, his experiences did not vary from any other HIV carrier in Pakistan. Hence, he was reluctant to come forward and fight with the disease, but through constant counseling over the years, he not only got registered as an HIV carrier for medical treatment but also quit drugs. But, he avoids telling people that he is an AIDS patient as he faces discriminatory behaviors.
While talking to News Lens Pakistan, Faisal Majeed, Project Director, Provincial Aids Control Program, Punjab said that the Government of Pakistan is working hard for the prevention of HIV transmission with measures such as safe blood transfusions, reduction of STD transmission, establishment of surveillance and dealing with HIV-related stigma. The Government has registered 14,705 HIV carriers across Pakistan till December 2015 but fighting cultural ignominy is still a serious challenge.
According to UNAIDS, HIV related opprobrium is prevalent in the lives of people living with HIV. It leads to discrimination and sometimes violent treatment to the HIV carriers and their families.