Lax oversight of blood banks means about a fifth of patients in Pakistan who get regular transfusions have been infected with hepatitis, a top government health official said on Friday. Some also get HIV.
Pakistan's dangerously unregulated blood banks are in the spotlight after a charitable federation said 10 children getting transfusions for a blood disease contracted HIV.
About 22,000 children with thalassaemia, which causes low levels of protein in the blood, get regular transfusions, the Thalassaemia Federation of Pakistan said.
Government officials are investigating and have not confirmed the cases it cited.
Poor oversight of blood supply is a problem for all needing regular transfusions, said Javed Akram, head of the state-run Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences.
In addition to Pakistan's thalassaemia patients, 250,000 kidney patients need regular blood transfusions, Akram said.
"Of all patients requiring regular blood transfusions for survival, about 20 percent have hepatitis B or C. A few also have HIV," he said. "They are desperate for blood. Most of them can't get it safely."
As many as 20 percent of such patients had hepatitis B and C, while about 1 percent had been infected with HIV, he estimated.
The World Health Organization says 13 million Pakistanis have hepatitis B or C and about 85,000 have HIV/AIDS.
The government had no plans to test the hundreds of thousands of people who may have received infected blood because the problem was too entrenched, Akram said.
He said most patients his hospital saw went to eight different blood banks, on average, for transfusions. Many blood banks buy supplies from drug addicts who need cash, he added.
Pakistan has many private blood banks, but oversight is lax. So children like 12-year-old Waqas, whose family asked that his full name not be used, get infected. He has HIV.
"When I don't go to school and I'm not feeling well, my friends ask me 'where were you?'," he said, squirming in an oversize pinstripe suit. "I tell them I had a fever."
Some banks test for diseases with cheap kits and miss two-thirds of infections, said Hasan Abbas Zaheer, of the Safe Blood Transfusion Program. The capital, Islamabad, is the only place that regularly inspected or licensed blood banks, he said.
Akram said it would be hard to identify banks selling infected blood since patients used so many.
"This has been a problem for a long time," he said. "The government only cares about it when the cameras are focused on it."