Pakistanis risk unproven plasma treatment in virus fight

ISLAMABAD (AFP) – Pakistanis with COVID-19 are risking their lives and navigating a shady black market to get blood plasma transfusions, despite scant medical proof about the remedy’s effectiveness.

Convalescent plasma treatment, where the antibody-rich part of the blood from a recovered patient is transfused to a coronavirus sufferer, is growing in popularity across Pakistan amid widely circulating claims of success on social media.

Like some other nations, Pakistan is conducting medical trials on the treatment, which has shown promising signs but is far from proven.

But with lengthy wait times and uncertain access, people are turning to the black market and private clinics, where there are no guarantees about the safety or origin of the blood product.

“It’s all born out of desperation because everyone wants to believe there is an answer to this (coronavirus) question,” Fareeha Irfan, a public health specialist, told AFP.

“It is easy to exploit the people who are not very well versed in what’s going on in the scientific world. It is very easy to coerce them.”

Zoraiz Riaz Syed, who runs the Facebook group ‘Corona Recovered Warriors’ consisting of former COVID-19 coronavirus patients, uses his computer laptop at his home in Lahore. PHOTO: AFP

Pakistan has declared about 260,000 cases of coronavirus and some 5,500 deaths. With low testing rates, the true figure is thought to be considerably higher.

The Pakistan Society of Haematology said plasma hype had led the public – and even some health professionals – to believe the therapy was standard treatment for the virus.

“Use of convalescent plasma can sometimes lead to life-threatening transfusion reactions and transmissions of infections,” the society said.

Nawaz Murad, a lecturer from Lahore, said doctors advised him to organise plasma therapy as a last-ditch attempt to save his father, rapidly deteriorating from COVID-19.

Frantic, he turned to Facebook, where he found a donor within hours. To complete the treatment quickly, the family did not get the blood screened, leaving open the risk of infections such as hepatitis or HIV.

“Of course it was worth the risk, there was no other option but to get the transfusion done as soon as possible,” Murad told AFP. “It was not a normal situation; my family were under immense stress.”

The donor provided his plasma for free, but Murad paid the equivalent of about USD100 to a doctor to provide the transfusion at home. Some private clinics are reportedly charging up to USD300 in the impoverished country.