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Last Updated: Friday, 6 August, 2004, 07:20 GMT 08:20 UK
New Light for Pakistan HIV sufferers
By Ayesha Javed Akram in Lahore

Nazir Masih
Nazir believes he caught HIV in the Middle East
Nazir Masih is HIV positive and has been for more than a decade.

He is one of few Pakistanis willing to talk candidly about a still highly taboo subject.

After being diagnosed in 1990, Nazir adopted a new mission in life as founder of the Aids charity New Light.

The charity provides much-needed financial and emotional support to others whose lives have been affected by the virus.

Before diagnosis, his hopes and dreams were like those of many others.

"I always wanted to own a big house with a yard where my children could ride their bicycles," he says.

"Taking over my father's three shops was all I ever wanted to do."

One mistake

Nazir dropped out of school after fifth grade (around age 10 to 11) and tried his hand at bicycle repair.

He soon realised he was unable to live on his low earnings and like so many young Pakistani men decided to try his luck abroad, in Abu Dhabi.

We weren't invited to anyone's house. My children weren't allowed to go to school and my wife's family refused to come over
Nazir Masih

Barely literate, he considered himself lucky to find work as a domestic helper for a rich Arab family.

Things worked out well - he won promotion and respect.

"I really enjoyed my job there," he says. "They used to treat me like a family member."

On a trip to Lahore, he married a girl of his mother's choice and soon she fell pregnant.

It took one mistake to ruin it all.

"I couldn't afford to take my wife to Abu Dhabi and was living with two other men who had also left their wives behind in Pakistan," says Nazir.

"Every other weekend, we would go to a random hotel where you could get a prostitute for 100 to 150 dirhams ($27-$40).

"I would often join my colleagues and I'm pretty sure I caught the virus from one of those women," he recalls in a monotone voice that suggests he has told this story countless times.

Resigned

Nazir came to know about his disease in 1990 when he visited the Pakistan embassy in Abu Dhabi to have his passport renewed and visa extended.

A new law making medical tests obligatory for visa applicants had recently been passed and Nazir went through the test as an immigration formality.

He tested positive for HIV.

He returned to Pakistan and shortly after received a letter from the immigration office in Dubai informing him he could not go back.

New Light offices in Pakistan
Nazir began New Light with help from Christian charities

Nazir still did not truly comprehend the significance of his illness.

"I thought I would be medicated, maybe have to go through surgery and then be cured. I didn't realise this would define the rest of my life," he says.

Eventually, as doctors explained the disease, Nazir resigned himself to the reality of HIV and Aids.

"The worst part was realising I would never be cured. Every morning, I would get up wondering how many more days I had left," he says.

The first few months were the worst time. "I just couldn't bring myself to accept my fate."

Pakistan has not made any great progress in its Aids policies but back in 1997 it was even more ill-equipped to deal with it.

Nazir had to endure daily visits from Ministry of Health officials that virtually amounted to persecution, he says.

"They must have taken at least 20 blood samples from me and the same number from my wife and two of my children."

News spread of his condition. Neighbours and friends avoided him.

"We weren't invited to anyone's house. My children weren't allowed to go to school and my wife's family refused to come over. I felt ostracised and rejected. I couldn't believe my entire family was being punished so severely for a mistake I had made."

Under-diagnosis

The 50-year-old was contemplating suicide when he was contacted by a Christian charity.

Nazir Masih
New Light spreads messages of hope for HIV sufferers

It provided him with the funds for his medication and also, crucially, put him in touch with other HIV sufferers.

It started with three patients meeting once a month, lending each other moral support.

A year later, Nazir laid the foundation for an organisation for HIV patients, partially funded by Christian charities.

He called it New Light.

Today, New Light has about 60 HIV positive patients registered at its offices in the Punjab.

"We provide general medical health care and specialised Aids medication to patients," says Nazir.

He feels the situation has improved drastically for sufferers.

"The government has got a better handle on the situation now and even society at large has the awareness to know the condition cannot be transmitted by touching or eating with a patient."

However, Nazir admits cases of harassment and abandonment are still not uncommon and at times New Light has had to provide refuge for patients thrown out by their family.

Nazir knows the future will not be easy but also that being HIV positive is no reason to give up.

According to Dr Faisal Sultan, an infectious disease specialist working in Lahore, there may be an under-diagnosis of HIV in Pakistan because doctors are reluctant to order the test, fearing they will unduly alarm their patients.

The numbers are currently small, but Dr Sultan says: "Potentially this is a big problem since other countries, notably India, have gone from small to big in a very short time."


SEE ALSO:
HIV message Bollywood-style
08 Dec 03  |  Health
Religions rise to Aids challenge
05 Dec 03  |  South Asia
'I was treated as an untouchable'
03 Dec 03  |  South Asia
Pakistan launches Aids programme
18 Nov 03  |  South Asia
Aids fear in Pakistan
10 Jul 03  |  South Asia


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