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Rising tide of waterborne, vector-borne diseases threatening Pakistan

M. Waqar Bhatti
Wednesday, Apr 10, 2024

ISLAMABAD: Waterborne and vector-borne diseases in addition to droplet infections have become a major health challenge for Pakistan, where hundreds of thousands of cases of acute watery diarrhoea (AWD), malaria and influenza-like illness (ILI) are being reported on a monthly basis, epidemiologists and officials have warned.

“Every week around 120,000 to 125,000 cases are being reported from different parts of the country,” an official of the National Institute of Health (NIH) Islamabad told The News. “We have reports of over 1.8 million cases of AWD in the first three months of 2024.”

The official, who requested anonymity, said that 124,730 diarrhoea cases were reported in the last week of March, of which 66,535 were reported in Punjab, and 36,251 in Sindh, most of them in Karachi, Hyderabad and Sukkur.

He said that 14,153 diarrhoea cases were reported in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and 5,746 in Balochistan, while hundreds of cases were also being reported in Gilgit-Baltistan, Azad Jammu & Kashmir and Islamabad Capital Territory.

Similarly, malaria is constantly on the rise, with over 650,000 cases having been reported in different areas of the country in the first three months of 2024, said the official.

He said that 56,107 malaria cases were reported in the last week of March, of which 46,275 (around 83 per cent) were reported in Sindh alone.

He also said that ILI has become another major public health challenge, as thousands of people are getting sick throughout the country on a weekly basis.

Over 600,000 cases of ILI, including confirmed cases of influenza A and influenza B, have been reported in the first three months of the current year, he added.

“In the last week of March we observed 50,652 ILI cases, most of them in Sindh, where 31,765 cases were reported, followed by 8,542 in Balochistan, 5,878 in KP, and hundreds in other areas of the country,” he said, claiming that Punjab did not share their figures with the NIH.

Commenting on the AWD situation, the NIH official said Pakistan is grappling with a significant outbreak posing a serious public health challenge across the country.

The outbreak has led to a surge in cases, particularly in densely populated urban areas and rural communities, raising concerns among health authorities, he added.

He blamed poor sanitation, contaminated water sources, and inadequate access to potable water and proper hygiene facilities for the rise of diarrhoea cases across the country.

He said that extensive efforts are afoot to contain the outbreak, including implementing hygiene awareness campaigns, distributing oral rehydration solutions, and enhancing surveillance and monitoring systems.

He also said that provincial governments are working tirelessly in collaboration with international health organisations to mitigate the impact of the AWD outbreak and prevent further spread.

Urgent measures are being taken to improve the sanitation infrastructure, ensure access to safe drinking water, and strengthen healthcare services in the affected regions, he added.

“Despite these efforts, the situation remains challenging, highlighting the need for sustained interventions and increased public awareness to combat AWD effectively. The authorities continue to urge the public to prioritise hygiene practices, including handwashing with soap, to minimise the risk of infection and help contain the outbreak.”

The official said Pakistan is also witnessing a notable increase in cases of ILI, raising concerns among health authorities and the general public alike. ILI, characterised by symptoms similar to those of influenza, is causing a significant burden on healthcare facilities across the country, he pointed out.

“The surge in ILI cases has been attributed to various factors, including seasonal changes, crowded living conditions, and the circulation of influenza viruses. ILI can spread rapidly, especially in densely populated urban areas and among vulnerable populations, such as children, the elderly and individuals with underlying health conditions.”

Weekly reports indicate that hospitals and clinics nationwide are experiencing a surge in patients presenting with symptoms of ILI, including fever, cough, sore throat, body aches and fatigue, he said.

The influx of cases has put immense pressure on the healthcare infrastructure, leading to longer waiting times, and challenges in providing timely medical care to those in need, he added.

“We urge the public to remain vigilant and take proactive measures to prevent the spread of ILI. Recommendations include practising good hand hygiene, covering coughs and sneezes, avoiding close contact with sick individuals, and getting vaccinated against influenza viruses.” As for malaria, the mosquito-borne disease has become a significant public health concern in Pakistan, particularly in regions with favourable environmental conditions for mosquito breeding and limited access to healthcare services, said the official.

He added that in the current year the malaria situation in Sindh underscores both progress and persistent challenges in the fight against this deadly disease.

“Over the years Pakistan has made considerable strides in malaria control efforts, with initiatives aimed at improving diagnosis, treatment and prevention. However, Sindh continues to report a substantial burden of malaria cases, disproportionately affecting rural and marginalised communities.”

He maintained that one of the primary challenges in combating malaria in Sindh is the province’s diverse ecological landscape, which includes riverine areas, coastal regions and arid zones. Each of these environments presents unique challenges for malaria control, and requires tailored interventions to address transmission dynamics effectively, he concluded.