PESHAWAR: An international team of experts from the World Health Organisation (WHO) has arrived in Pakistan to support the response to an outbreak of HIV in Larkana in Sindh at the request of the Ministry of Health.

The outbreak was first reported on April 25, and a major HIV screening programme started on April 28. It was expanded on May 08, with additional health workers being deployed. Testing is ongoing.

So far more than 600 HIV cases have been identified. The majority are among children and young people: more than half those affected are children under the age of five. This poses a particular challenge. Prior to this outbreak, there were just over 1,200 children diagnosed with HIV and receiving antiretroviral treatment in the whole of Pakistan.

On May 16, local authorities established a new antiretroviral treatment clinic for children in Larkana.

Key tasks for the WHO-led team will include ascertaining the source of the outbreak and controlling it; providing technical expertise, particularly in the areas of HIV testing, paediatric HIV treatment and family counseling; and ensuring adequate supplies of rapid diagnostic tests and antiretroviral medicines for both adults and children, as well as single-use needles and syringes, says a press release.

The WHO mission will include experts in emergency response management, epidemiology, HIV clinical care and infection prevention and control from WHO staff as well as the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network (GOARN). The team will work closely with the Ministry of Health and partners, including the Aga Khan University, Pakistan’s Field Epidemiology & Laboratory Training Programme (FELTP), UNAIDS and Unicef in Larkana.

On Sunday, Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on National Health Services Dr Zafar Mirza said that he has taken the provincial health minister into confidence and called an international rapid response team in the aftermath of the recent HIV/AIDS outbreak in Sindh.

Pakistan is a considered a low-prevalence country for HIV but the recent news about quick spread of HIV allegedly from an infected doctor caused great concern for the government. The infected doctor continues to plead innocence, saying that he was even unaware about his own disease.

Dr Zafar Mirza said the reasons behind the spread of the disease in Sindh will be known within few weeks.