By Umar Farooq
ISTANBUL (Reuters) - When musician Zoraiz Riaz set up a Facebook group to help coordinate convalescent plasma donations for people fighting COVID-19 in Pakistan, he expected perhaps a few hundred responses.
Within a month, however, the "Corona Recovered Warriors" group had more than 320,000 members, needing a team of 33 volunteers to manage posts from families of patients across Pakistan seeking advice.
"Around 85% are looking for plasma," Riaz, 27, told Reuters from his home in the eastern Pakistani metropolis of Lahore, one of the hardest-hit cities in the South Asian nation, which has recorded nearly 210,000 infections and over 4,300 deaths from the virus.
"The rest are looking for different medical supplies, oxygen, ventilators, injections for drugs, or leads on hospitals that have availability," Riaz added.
The scale of the response highlights the large gap left by a disorganised healthcare system in Pakistan which is ill-equipped to offer systematic guidance as COVID-19 deaths mount.
The group this week featured the country's top expert giving advice on convalescent plasma treatment.
"There was no clear guidance from the government, and we had to face this urgent amount of requests for plasma from almost everyone, even people whose medical consultants were not recommending it were coming to us asking for plasma," Riaz said.
Plasma treatment, involving the infusion of plasma from a recovered COVID-19 patient to a recovering one as a source of antibodies, is widely sought despite limited information on its effectiveness.
Leading Pakistani haematologists warned this month the treatment had become widespread and that government guidelines were urgently needed - particularly with a burgeoning black market for plasma.
Health officials finally put in place national standards for plasma treatment and warned the public that the sale of plasma is illegal.
But many families with sick loved ones had already sought guidance from the Facebook group, with volunteer physicians answering questions about plasma and linking donors and recipients to bypass the black market.
Each request for plasma, Riaz says, is screened by volunteers who require medical documentation from physicians showing the treatment is viable. Donors are also screened to ensure no one is selling the plasma.
Members are also offering ventilators and oxygen tanks to hospitals, and home-cooked food for families of patients or those in quarantine.
Many offer advice on hospitals with available beds or where to find drugs prescribed by doctors, which are not easily available from markets because the government has been unable to control hoarding and profiteering amid the pandemic.
"Corona Recovered Warriors" isn't the only social media platform being used by desperate families.
"Blood Donors Pakistan", set up in 2011 using Twitter to connect families with blood donors, is also getting more than 50 requests a day.
"When your family is in this condition, whatever remedy (available), even if not effective, is something they try to use," Usama Mehmood Khan, who helps run the platform, told Reuters.