Saviours in Sukkur: Crucial AIDS centre may have to shift

SUKKUR: A project that has been a ray of hope for over a hundred Aids patients may soon be forced to shift out of the reach of those who rely on it. This is the Sukkur-based Community Home Based Care Centre, which has been operating since June 2012, providing a lifeline for those suffering from this deadly disease.

This programme, which operates under the supervision of Catholic Relief Services, through the Sukkur Blood and Drugs Donating Society, aims to not only curb the spread of AIDS, but also to make life better for those already infected.

“Our job is to identify Aids patients. To do so, we visit cheap hotels, dargahs, graveyards, railway stations and other such places, where we can find drug addicts,” explains project manager Mohammad Shafiq. “After identification, we send such patients to Karachi for further tests, and provide the travel and food expenses. Later on, we also give them medical care, a monthly ration, school fees for their children, and even clothes.”

Mohammad Shafiq speaks with the confidence of a man who knows his subject well, and understands the importance of the task at hand.

“We have identified 111 AIDS patients in the last one year in nine districts of upper and lower Sindh – Sukkur, Ghotki, Khairpur, Kashmore, Jacobabad, Shikarpur, Naushehro Feroze, Larkana, Dadu and Hyderabad. All these people are availing the facilities of this centre,” says Shafiq.”

Out of these 111, only 2 are women. According to Shafiq, the main reason for the spread of the disease in the reuse of syringes by drug addicts, though other experts also point towards unprotected sex as being another vector for the disease.  Whatever the cause, Shafiq warns that AIDS is spreading rapidly in these nine districts.

“I am being taken good care of by this programme,” says Ghulam Ali*, a patient who says he contracted AIDS due to syringe reuse. “I have now stopped taking drugs, have established a small shop in my house, and am slowly rebuilding my life.” But Ali, and others like him, may soon no longer be able to avail these services as the centre may soon be shifted to a place many of its regulars will not be able to reach.

A wrong move?

The head office of Catholic Relief Services, based in Islamabad, recently informed the Sukkur team that their centre will be shifted to Shaheed Benazirabad (Nawabshah). This news has left many patients shocked, as Sukkur is a much more central and accessible place for people from various districts.

“There are only 28 patients in Shaheed Benazirabad, and the number of patients in Hyderabad is 7,” says Shafiq. “We don’t understand why a centre that provides the best services to 111 patients is being shifted to Shaheed Benazirabad, which is really far from Sukkur and other adjoining districts. We are not objecting to the move because of any personal interests, but because we are looking out for the interest of those 111 poor AIDS patients who will not be able to afford travel to the new centre. Sometimes, we have to provide medicine and relief to the doorsteps of patients, as they don’t even have enough money to come to our office. How will these people go to Shaheed Benazirabad?”

Karim Bux*, a married man with a son and daughter, is one of the infected. He, too, says he contracted AIDS because he used to inject drugs with friends.

“This centre has done a lot. My son, who is in class 1, has even been given a school uniform and his fees have been paid,” says Bux. “However, I am now worried.  I am not even able to go to the office in Sukkur. How will I go to Shaheed Benazirabad?”

When contacted, the Catholic Relief Services Country Programme and Quality Manager Courtney Plummer directly refused to share any information regarding the shift of the centre. The assistant coordinator, Farrukh, later revealed that Plummer is not allowed to present her version, as she is a foreigner.

After a pause, Farrukh said the shift is a “sensitive issue” and should not be delved into.

“There is nothing wrong with shifting a centre from one place to another,” he said quietly.

*Names Have Been Changed To Protect Identity

Published in The Express Tribune, June 9th, 2013.

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