Tuesday, December 27, 2016

AKU faculty wins HEC award

By Abdul Qadir Qureshi
(Pakistan News & Features Services)

Dr Sadia Bhutta of AKU’s Institute for Educational Development (IED), has received the Best University Teacher award from the Higher Education Commission (HEC) for the year 2015 at a ceremony in Islamabad.

The annual award from HEC, Pakistan’s university accreditation and regulatory body, honours teachers in higher education who have made a contribution to society through innovative teaching practices, research and community service. 

An IED alumna from the Class of 1999, Dr Bhutta went on to earn her doctorate in Education with a specific focus on Health Promotion through Schools from Oxford University’s Department of Education before returning to Pakistan to take up a position as the IED’s Head of Research and Policy Studies. 

In this role, she ensures that research at IED is relevant to the country’s education challenges and that studies are designed to inform government policy. Alongside her research responsibilities, she also teaches graduate classes in research methodology, health promotion and science.

Her innovative teaching methods have seen her win IED’s annual student-nominated on five occasions, including a period where she won the prize for four years in a row. 

Speaking about the award from the HEC, Dr Bhutta said: “I’m honoured to receive this national award. I’ve always felt at home in the classroom where my focus has been on engaging students so that they really enjoy learning. IED has helped me understand how people learn, how to use different teaching methods and how important it is to constantly reflect on one’s educational practices.” 

Dr Bhutta started her academic career as a secondary school science teacher in a government school in Balochistan. 

In recent years she has focused on teaching science education, the development and validation of assessment tools as well as leading and conducting large-scale studies in the field of education in general and science and health education in particular.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Expert advice on combating antimicrobial resistance in Pakistan

By Abdul Qadir Qureshi
(Pakistan News & Features Services)

The experts have warned that misuse and overuse of antibiotics in humans and animals has resulted in the widespread distribution of resistant organisms in several countries, including Pakistan which means that antibiotics which were previously able to cure will not work any more.

They were addressing a national symposium on antimicrobial resistance (AMR) organized by the Aga Khan University (AKU), Karachi. 

The symposium coincides with the launch of the National Strategic Framework for Antimicrobial Resistance by the Government of Pakistan the other week. 

“Antibiotic resistance is as much a problem in Pakistan as in the Western hemisphere,” Dr Sadia Shakoor, Assistant Professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at AKU, reckoned. 

“We know that infections acquired in the community are becoming resistant because antibiotics are available freely to the population even without prescriptions, leading to overuse. This needs to be checked through physician training to limit prescriptions and legislation to prevent over-the-counter availability of antibiotics,” she added. 

Superbugs, resistant to antimicrobials, are estimated to account for 700,000 deaths each year worldwide. A study shows that drug resistant infections will kill an extra 10 million people a year – more than currently die from cancer, by 2050 unless action is taken.

“At the UN General Assembly in September this year, leaders from 193 countries signed a landmark declaration agreeing to combat antimicrobial resistance,” Dr Rana Hajjeh, Director, Department of Communicable Diseases Prevention and Control, WHO Regional Office for the Eastern Mediterranean., observed. 

“Every signatory has agreed that drug resistant infections must be tackled as a priority. The nations have committed to develop surveillance and regulatory systems on the use and sale of antimicrobial medicines for humans and animals, encourage innovative ways to develop new antibiotics and improve rapid diagnostics, and raise awareness among health professionals and the public on how to prevent drug resistant infections,” she said while having ongratulated Pakistan for developing the first national policy on antimicrobial resistance.

Dr Rumina Hasan, Professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at AKU highlighted the need for strengthening diagnostic facilities to better diagnose infectious diseases and detect AMR to guide health care providers in selecting appropriate treatment. The AMR develops naturally over time, usually through genetic changes in bacteria. However, misuse and overuse of antimicrobials accelerates this process. 

“Most illnesses with fevers, e.g., colds, flu and diarrhea, are caused by viruses, for which antibiotics are not recommended. However, due to over-the-counter availability, antibiotic consumption is found to correlate with these seasonal illnesses implying the misuse of antibiotics,” Dr Erum Khan, Assistant Professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at AKU, remarked. 

“Other examples of misuse include use of antibiotics as growth promoters in farming of animals for food, livestock, fish and poultry farming. As for humans, antibiotic usage in animals too should be restricted to manage bacterial infections. The rate of discovery of new antibiotics has slowed down drastically and the antibiotic pipeline is running dry. There is an urgent need to conserve and safeguard the antibiotics that we have available.” 

The other speakers included Dr Muhammad Salman from National Institute of Health, Dr Ejaz Khan from Shifa International Hospital, Dr Rene Hendriksen from Technical University of Denmark, Dr Ali Ahmed from University of Veterinary and Animal Sciences, and Dr Revathi Gunturu and others from AKU. 

The event was organized by AKU’s Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine in collaboration with the University’s Department of Continuing Professional Education, Health Security Partners, USA, Medical Microbiology and Infectious Disease Society of Pakistan, and Pakistan Academy of Sciences

Monday, December 5, 2016

Karachi Railways Division completing mega projects

By Abdul Qadir Qureshi
(Pakistan News & Features Services)

The work on Rs 7 billion project of dualization of railway track from Port Qasim to Bin Qasim Railway station will be completed by June 30, 2017. 

The 11-km long track is being renewed with laying of a new track to facilitate the transportation of coal from Port Qasim to Bin Qasim Railway station for supply to upcountry destination. 

Engr Nisar Memon, the Divisional Superintendent Railways Karachi Division, revealed during an interview that 80 percent work on the existing track has been completed, while plan was afoot for the construction of a new railway station between Port Qasim and Bin Qasim. 

He said that the renewal work on 135-km track between Landhi and Kotri Railway Stations has been completed at a cost of Rs nine billion, adding that the work on strengthening of the track is going and upon completion, the train speed will increase from existing 110 km/hour to 120 Km/hour thus reducing the journey time considerably. 

Replying a question the DS Railways informed that uplift and renovation work of Karachi Cantonment Station was in progress. 

According to him as part of beefed up security measures, the railway authorities have installed two scanners Cantonment Station besides 8-10 walk through gates. 

He said that for security measures entries into station were being sealed. He said that railway is raising the platform of various stations between Karachi City and Tando Adam railway stations and work thereon will be completed by March 2017. 

To another question, Engr Nisar Memon claimed that black marketing of tickets has been minimized through stringent measures taken for the purpose. 

He stated that online advance booking system, introduced on the directive of the Railways Minister, Khawaja Saad Rafiq, has greatly facilitated the traveling public, indicating after the initial slow the response, it’s picking up with every passing day.

Harmful levels of lead and arsenic in common foods

By Abdul Qadir Qureshi
(Pakistan News & Features Services)

Unusually high levels of lead and arsenic, heavy metals most commonly associated with human poisoning, have been found in common foods. These are the findings of a research study, conducted by the Aga Khan University in collaboration with Japan’s Jichi Medical University, that were presented at a seminar Heavy Metals, Food Safety and Child Development at AKU on December 5.

Lead and arsenic are two chemicals deemed to be of major concern to public health, according to the World Health Organization’s International Programme on Chemical Safety, since both elements have toxic effects that can cause irreversible neurological damage and even trigger a wide range of chronic diseases. 

To determine the cause of lead and arsenic exposure, the AKU researchers looked at common sources of lead and arsenic exposure including petrol, foods, drinking water, house-dust, respirable dust and soil across urban and rural areas of Pakistan. 

In addition, blood samples from pregnant women, newborns and young children were taken to assess their health risk. Surprisingly, drinking water and surma (kohl) were not the main sources of lead exposure. 

For pregnant women, foods such as potatoes and boiled rice and for children, food and house-dust were found to be the most important contributors of lead exposure. The women and children who took part in the study had blood lead levels significantly higher than the 5 µg/dl (microgrammes per deciliter) used as a reference level for health risk by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

Describing the findings of the study, Dr Ambreen Sahito, research coordinator for the study, stated that more than “60 per cent of newborns and about 90 per cent of children aged 1-3 years had blood lead levels that exceeded CDC guidelines, with grave lifelong consequences. Finding of the research are also relevant to Sustainable Development Goal 3 that calls for efforts to reduce deaths and illnesses caused by exposure to hazardous chemicals.” 

Dr Zafar Fatmi, professor of Community Health Sciences at AKU, revealed that Pakistan’s population has a relatively higher exposure to lead than other countries. “Food contamination can occur during production (farming), processing (in industry or at home) or packaging (if materials are contaminated with lead) and this calls for food processes to be regulated and monitored at each stage. Policymakers will need to pay closer attention to how lead contaminants are entering food chain.” 

He said that the next step was a systematic investigation to reveal at which point in the cycle food is contaminated. Research is also needed into the most commonly contaminated food items, he added. 

Exposure to lead can be limited by simple home activities: hand hygiene, mothers and children washing their hands and washing well, as well as regular wet mopping. Poocha, swabbing, lessens house-dust, containing air pollutants and paint contaminants, reducing lead exposure among children substantially, Dr Shahla Naeem, a member of the AKU research team, remarked 

A second study looking into arsenic exposure had equally surprising findings. It is often thought that drinking water and ‘unsafe’ cookware determines arsenic exposure. 

The researchers looked deeper into the issue by cooking with water that had been boiled and in pans made of four different metals. What they found was that regardless of the type of cookware used, chicken had at least 15 times more arsenic than potatoes and up to 5 times more arsenic than lentils that had been cooked in identical water. 

Explaining the policy implications of the arsenic study, Dr Fatmi, Dr Sahito and Dr Ghani pointed out two areas of concern. “Water standards do need to be considered. The government needs to provide a safe drinking water supply for communities living along the riverbanks as groundwater is a well-known source of arsenic.” 

“Equally important is food standards. We suspect that chicken feed or vaccines given to poultry could be the source of arsenic in meat.” 

It was pointed out that the US Federal Drug Authority has banned an arsenic-based poultry vaccine in April 2015 and regulatory authorities should consider doing the same in Pakistan. However, speakers stressed that the public should not stop eating chicken for fear of arsenic exposure. 

Dr Fatmi said: “While more research is needed on this topic, it’s important to note that people shouldn’t stop eating chicken altogether as it is an important source of protein. For the public, health risks from arsenic exposure are not only determined by the amount of toxins found in food but also by the rate of consumption and the body mass (height and weight) of the consumer.” 

Epigenetic studies are underway, in collaboration with the Japanese that investigate how lead and arsenic exposure affect genes and could potentially lead to chronic diseases. Such research would help understand the long-term impact of heavy metals on public health, speakers added. 

The studies have been funded by Japan’s Ministry Of Health, Labour and Welfare with support from AKU’s University Research Council. Dr Abdul Ghani, Dr Ambreen Sahito and Dr Shahla Naeem from the Aga Khan University’s Community Health Sciences Department and Professor Fujio Kayama from the JICHI Medical University spoke at the event. 

Professor Asad Saeed from Karachi University, Amna Khatoon and Seema Ashraf from the Pakistan Standards and Quality Control Authority, M Yahya from the Sindh Environmental Protection Agency, Professor Masood Kadir from the AKU’s Community Health Sciences Department and Dr Ghazala Rafique from the AKU’s Human Development Programme were also present at the seminar.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

New strategies can renew hope for Pakistan’s five million disabled

By Abdul Qadir Qureshi
(Pakistan News & Features Services)

“We are running successful businesses, leading civil rights organizations and inspiring students in schools,” members of the public with disabilities spoke at a seminar on December 2 at the Aga Khan University (AKU), Karachi, 

The strategies to prevent injuries that cause disabilities, initiatives to broaden access to rehabilitative services and steps to make educational services more inclusive were discussed at the event celebrating the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. In Pakistan, five million people suffer from some form of disability. 

“Yet less than 1 in 5 of the country’s persons with disabilities (PWD) can access the social and educational support they need to thrive. Only 1 in 7 receive the help they need to participate fully in the workforce and just 1 in 10 have access to rehabilitative services that can help them recover.” 

“If the true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members, then Pakistan has much more to do on this front. We can make a small start by ensuring that facilities for wheelchair users are present in all public spaces,” Dr Mohammad Wasay, professor of neurology at AKU, pointed out. 

The speakers at the event noted that the 2002 National Policy for Persons with Disabilities calls for the creation of an environment that provides full support to PWDs by 2025. 

They reckoned that much work still needs to be done to fulfill the government’s policy goals and also drew attention to the theme of this year’s world day Achieving 17 Goals for the Future We Want which refers to international commitments under the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. 

“Pakistan is committed to the global agenda and there are 11 specific references to persons with disabilities in the Sustainable Development Goals, under Goals 4, 8, 10, 11 and 17. These goals call for access to quality education, steps to reduce inequality, strategies to promote inclusive economic growth, initiatives to make communities and cities accessible to all, and formal efforts to track the impact of programmes on the most vulnerable populations.” 

“Support for these goals is needed across all sections of society so that Pakistan adopts policies that support PWDs and creates an environment that enables them to achieve their full potential,” Dr Wasay added. 

Outlining the steps that can help prevent disabilities and create an inclusive society, experts called on members of civil society, welfare organizations and the government to collaborate to introduce three types of measures. The first is to improve the enforcement of road traffic laws on speed limits, rash driving and mandatory helmet wearing that the results in one million trauma injuries a year in the country. 

About 10 per cent of these injuries, which affect the brain and spinal cord, lead to disabilities which can be prevented by ensuring that traffic laws are obeyed. 

A second initiative that needs to be taken is within hospitals, said speakers. Many types of disabilities related to childhood development delays, sensory impairments and motor disabilities can be treated through rehabilitative programmes, therapies, and the provision of orthopaedic devices. 

Unfortunately, these vital services are not available in most public sector hospitals. Experts said the government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) has taken the lead in this area by ensuring the presence of rehabilitative services at every district level public sector hospital and urged other provincial governments to follow KP’s example. 

Commenting on the importance of rehabilitative services, Javed Sheikh, CEO of HR consultancy e-square, spoke of the severe spinal cord injuries in 1995 that left him paralysed from the waist down. 

“After my injury, I went through 25 days of rehabilitation and occupational therapy which helped me to understand how to return to daily tasks at home and work. The therapy enabled me to return to living my life. Today, I continue to lead the company I founded in 2006, 11 years after my disability. I may be in a wheelchair but I can go wherever I please and I am independent.” 

Dr Wasay also mentioned the need for public awareness initiatives to help in the early detection and treatment of diseases such as stroke and diabetes that can cause disabilities. 

He explained that stroke could cause paralysis while diabetes can result in vision loss, renal issues and complications requiring amputation. 

Finally, speakers also stressed how professional bodies, the media and public sector stakeholders can play an important role in helping the disabled access higher education. Nasimuddin, an associate professor at the Government College for Women, Sharea Liaquat, who is legally blind, said: “There are many institutions devoted to supporting the education of those with special needs but they lack the funds and workforce to make a difference. Scholarships and reserved seats for the disabled can empower PWDs to achieve their potential.” 

“The government can also help by conducting a census of PWDs so that they can understand that there are many PWDs who are capable of excelling in school and in the workplace. In addition, we also need the electronic media to profile successful people with disabilities so that people believe that we can play a useful role in society.” 

Javed Sheikh also highlighted how support among one’s immediate family and colleagues plays an important role in adjusting to the new reality and in encouraging PWDs to take charge of their lives. 

“I was working as the regional sales manager of a large telecommunications company when my spinal cord injury meant that I had to use a wheelchair. I remember the CEO of the company sending me a letter assuring me that I was an integral part of the organisation. My colleagues and immediate family were also very encouraging in the early days. When you give people such a harmonious and encouraging environment it empowers them to take charge of their lives and overcome any obstacle.”  
Other speakers on the day included deaf businessman Khursheed Akhtar, the President of the Deaf and Dumb Association, Aamir Nizami, a patient with multiple scelerosis who manages a retail business, Mohsin Kaimkhani, Director, Revenue, of the Karachi Water and Sewerage Board, who is paralysed from the waist down, and Nazir-ul-Hasan who earns a living as a rickshaw driver despite limb disabilities caused by polio.