10 Pakistani children get HIV from blood transfusions

ISLAMABAD - Ten Pakistani children have been infected with HIV after receiving tainted blood transfusions, officials said Thursday, in a "shocking" case highlighting the abysmal state of blood screening in the country.

The children, aged five to sixteen, all suffer from the hereditary blood disorder Thalassaemia, which requires patients to undergo regular transfusions.

Saira Afzal Tarar, Minister of National Health Services Regulation and Coordination, slammed the case as "shocking" and promised an investigation.

"I have sought reports about the incident and I am also writing to the provincial governments about it," she said.

While Pakistan has federal and provincial acts of parliament requiring blood screening, their implementation is weak.

"The people responsible should be punished and punished very severely," said Javed Akram, vice chancellor of the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences.

"Somebody struggled with a lifelong disease and you gave them another lifelong disease," he said.

Akram said the number of children affected was likely to increase as more Thalassaemia patients underwent testing.

"We have offered them free-of-cost treatment, treating both HIV-AIDS as well as Thalassaemia," he said.

Dr Yasmin Rashid, secretary general of the Thalassaemia Federation of Pakistan, said the affected children were from Islamabad, Rawalpindi and Lahore, though it was hard to pinpoint at this stage which blood banks were the culprits.

"All these children go through multiple transfusion centres. If they don't go through one centre they go from another centre."

Rashid said that while some transfusion centres screen for Hepatitis B and C, they do not normally test for HIV.

Pakistan is considered a low prevalence country for HIV, with UNAIDS estimating that less than 0.05 per cent of the general population is infected.

But the disease is expanding among injecting drug users, sex workers, and migrant labourers returning from the Gulf.

Thalassaemia prevents the production of haemoglobin and affects an estimated 50,000 people in the country.