From diagnoses to treatment and beyond: Hamza fights to break barriers against HIV in Pakistan

Meeting Hamza* in his office for the first time, one would not immediately comprehend the struggle the man behind the desk had faced. He completed his education with top grades in the graduating class of 1987 at the regional board level in Pakistan. After that, he was accepted for a government job. After several years in public service, he joined his family business in 2004 and things were going well for him and his family.

In March, 2011, Hamza fell ill with high fever between 101°F – 104°F. Since there were no other significant symptoms, initially, he wasn’t too concerned about it. However, within a short period of time, frequent vomiting attacks and other physical ailments started to show together with high fever. Now concerned, he visited the major hospitals and medical centers in his city and surrounding area for checkups and tests. Some test results indicated diagnoses of possible causes ranging from cancer to dengue fever and he was prescribed various medicines for each of these conditions. None of these had a positive effect on his deteriorating health. Now alarmed, he approached leading medical specialists for further opinion.

The medical experts could not provide a firm diagnosis as to what was ailing him. A biopsy was carried out, with cancer being the main suspicion. The results were sent to leading medical institutions in Karachi as well as the UK but again results remained inconclusive. From March 2011 to August 2011, he remained on this regime of daily medication with no positive results. By this time, his physical condition had weakened to the point where he had to be put on a drip twice a day to cleanse his system. Eventually, he was referred to a Government hospital in his native city where a doctor diagnosed him with tuberculosis (TB).

Predictably, as part of the hospital’s Standard Operating Procedure (S.O.P), a suspected TB patient was required to undergo HIV screening. The screening test produced HIV positive results, but Hamza was not informed of this outcome at that time. Instead, he was advised to undergo further screening/testing at one of the few hospitals in Pakistan that offered effective HIV screening/testing and treatment facilities, in Islamabad. “By this time, I could barely walk and my brothers had to help me even to sit up,” he said. Following the extensive testing, in September 2011, Hamza received a notice from the Counselor of the HIV department at the hospital that he had been diagnosed with HIV. “My first reaction was of utter shock. I could not speak a single word,”  confessed Hamza.

Since he is an educated person, he was given a lot of literature on HIV to read. By the time he reached home from Islamabad, came home, he had time to reflect. He accepted his situation and decided to fight it. This resolve made him feel better. He understood that though there is no cure to HIV, there is treatment available. From then on, Hamza engrossed himself in learning as much as he could about HIV by researching local and international resources on the internet. “My family was extremely supportive. They became more caring, very encouraging, and more sympathetic. Even now I get extra affection and love from each and every member of my family which made it much easier for me to face the challenge,”  says Hamza of his family’s response.

Hamza was advised to commence on anti-retroviral therapy (ART) medication which specifically treats HIV and is readily available in Pakistan. Within ten days of starting this treatment, he was out of bed and feeling stronger. By December 2011, he was back to his normal routine. The HIV treatment center also informed him that there was a national network in the country that was working for the empowerment of people living with HIV. He searched the internet for this network without success as they did not have a website at that time.

However, he came across a job posting for a Project Coordinator position at this organization in Pakistan which was funded by the Global Fund. He contacted the treatment center to enquire about this organization , where he was briefed and encouraged to apply for the opening. Within a month, he was invited for a test and an interview for the position. He was accepted immediately and started working with them within 2 days of the interview. This prospect of working for a cause that he himself was personally involved with gave Hamza a new momentum altogether. He was determined to assist other HIV affected persons in Pakistan in a professional role.

Hamza: [APN+] “encouraged me and provided me guidance and all kind of support so that now I am in a position to ease the challenges faced by an HIV affected person in Pakistan…”

Once on board, he decided to break the barrier of HIV stigma in Pakistan. Having gone through the difficult experience of first being inaccurately diagnosed and the delay in receiving correct treatment and then the challenge in discovering a national network for HIV affected people in Pakistan, he decided that, in his professional capacity at the network, he would make all information on HIV testing and treatment available through all outlets including the internet, in particular, through social media. Community outreach programs also formed a major part of this effort to reach all segments of society. Within a short span of time, Hamza was recognized as one of the leading voices and campaigners for his role in raising awareness among all stakeholders in Pakistan at domestic and international levels.

He now had access to relevant government departments, UN agencies such as UNAIDS as well as civil society organizations so that they all became actively engaged in his efforts to highlight and address the issue of HIV/AIDS in Pakistan. Speaking of his overall experience of being diagnosed with HIV and now working for the prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS, he says “In terms of support systems, UNAIDS was top in that regard as well as the Asia Pacific Network of Positive people (APN+). These two encouraged me and provided me guidance and all kind of support so that now I am in a position to ease the challenges faced by an HIV affected person in Pakistan, unlike the situation I had to face where it took months for me to be correctly diagnosed and eventually receive proper treatment,” he adds. “Creating community awareness is the key to eradicating the associated stigma as well as HIV/AIDS altogether from Pakistan. His motto is simple – “To get aware and act aware.”

For more info about The Association of people living with HIV [APLHIV] in Pakistan, click here.

*Name has been altered to protect his privacy

PS. Photo is unrelated to the story. Photo provided with courtesy from Pixabay.com

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