The struggles of Pakistan's first HIV sufferer
Nazir, Pakistan's first HIV patient, faces new challenges to this day
Nazir Masih (middle) at a Candlelight Memorial program in Lahore
Nazir Masih is a survivor. But that’s not the impression hundreds got when he spoke at the International Candlelight Memorial for AIDS victims in Lahore on Monday.
“NGOs helping to battle the virus are closing down as foreign funding dries. One of our four offices in the country will close this month. Perhaps it is time for me to give up too,” said the dejected executive of New Light Aids Control Society (NLCS), the first organization in Pakistan to work with people living with HIV and AIDS.
It’s a major source of concern for Pakistan’s 130,000 AIDS patients, among whom the 58-year-old is a prominent figure. He contracted HIV in 1990 whilst working in Dubai, becoming the first known Pakistani to carry the disease. Needless to say, it changed his whole life.
Working as a domestic helper for a rich Sheikh, he had arrived along with thousands of other foreign migrants just as Dubai’s economy was beginning its boom. “My visa was about to expire when I first started feeling a weakness inside,” recounted Nazir. “An Indian girl working at a private laboratory told me I was HIV positive. My whole world crashed as I saw the black strains in my blood sample under the microscope. Pray to Bahgwan, everything will be all right, she told me”.
He says he most likely contracted HIV from one of a number of heterosexual encounters he had during his early days in Dubai. After the shock of the diagnosis, his next challenge was a full body test, which was and still is a legal requirement for a UAE visa extension. Dubai has been known to imprison or deport HIV patients, so without awaiting the results, Nazir returned to Lahore to look for treatment.
The price of medical care meant he had to sell his house. At last a letter came to confirm the diagnosis. “My whole career finished that day. The future of my family was at stake,” he said. Three months later, he moved to Bangkok in the hope of starting a garment business but had to return the next day. “A blister swelled my finger. I stayed awake the whole night.”
It was only during a laboratory visit some months later that the significance of his diagnosis for Pakistan dawned on him. “Where were you? You have AIDS. We were looking for you”, his doctor told him. The blood sample, which was sent to Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, had beern returned with urgency. Nazir had become the first man to contract the virus in the country.
Government doctors began arriving en masse at his residence; countless physicians catalogued his medical history. When news that Pakistan had an AIDS sufferer began to curculate, one newspaper headline read: ‘As you sow, so shall you reap.’
“One doctor asked me to wear a laminated pamphlet of precautions as a necklace," he said. "It was inscribed with my contact details in case somebody found me dead outside.”
The health secretary in Punjab province also threatened Nazir with “dire consequences” should he get involved in any sexual activity. “Any person in my place could have died of a heart attack,” he said. “I was wishing death over my life. I stayed silent in that meeting.”
Nazir spent the next eight years meeting spiritual healers and physicians around the country in the hope of finding a cure. He then met with a Franciscan brother, Khushi Lal, who had returned from the Philippines after attending an HIV Education & Training Program.
Along with three other Christians, all of them deported from their respective countries of residence, Nazir started attending monthly prayer meetings with the brother. The four were granted a minor stipend. Growing sickness and death threats, however, compounded their worries.
Up until that time the Pakistani government had denied the existence of the virus in the country. But in 1998 a team from UNAIDS contacted Nazir’s group, and for the first time in Pakistan’s history, television audiences watched on World AIDS Day as a local spoke up for the rights of AIDS victims.
In 2003 Nazir reached another milestone when his New Light Aids Control Society managed to import anti-retroviral (ARV) drugs into Pakistan. His staff includes eight HIV carriers who treat around 600 registered clients from around the country.
“During seminars, we faced people labeling us as sinners and deserving to be shot dead,” he says. “We could not defeat the stigma and struggled to change attitudes.”
On top of continued stigma, the concerns over funding now dominate much of the discussion about HIV/AIDS in Pakistan, and could imperil the progress Nazir has made towards developing a care system for the disease.
“The slump began two years ago when the funds from World Bank were diverted to help flood victims,” says Dr Salman Shahid, project director of Punjab Aids Control Program PACP. “We still got government support but HIV/AIDS service-based NGOs, who largely depended on foreign aid, suffered the most.”
Nazir is keeping the pressure up, however. “The government should ensure provision of HIV testing kits, medication and professionally trained doctors in its hospitals,” he says.
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