Lahore-born Naqvi to race across the Sahara desert for a cause

Naqvi says his challenge is not only running the Marathon des Sables but to also the importance of medical screening of newborn children to a global level

Faizan Lakhani
Naqvi says that his challenge is not only running Marathon des Sables but to also to spread a global level the importance of screening a child. Photo: Geo News

KARACHI: Imagine running in temperatures of around 50 degrees, with the sun burning down on your skin, sand grains in your eyes, your mouth as dry as the desert, your backpack containing your weeks’ food, extra clothes, medical kit and sleeping bag strapped to your back. Your feet are sore as your running shoes start to fall apart from running across all terrains and on one day, in particular, you are running a double marathon—90 kilometers.

This is the challenge one faces in one of the toughest foot races in the world – the Marathon des Sables – a 250-kilometer race across the Sahara Desert over 6 days.

Around 978 runners from across the world are participating in the MDS race this year which commenced on Sunday. Lahore-born Akber Naqvi is the only Pakistani in the race.

Naqvi, who is also the first ever Pakistan born runner to participate in the Marathon des Sables, said he will be running to create awareness for his charity, the ZB Foundation, which provides medical screening for newborn babies.

Akber and his wife set up the ZB Foundation in the name of their late daughter, Zahra Beau, who they adopted from Pakistan when she was a newborn baby and brought her home to Dubai. But the infant fell seriously sick, spending 17 days in the ICU with doctors bewildered about her diagnosis. Zahra sadly died at four months old after every organ in her body stopped functioning. The child suffered from a very rare metabolic disorder that could have been detected at birth if she had received a newborn screening test.

Pakistan is one of the only countries in the world that does not offer this medical service but the Naqvis have managed to set up the first and only unit in the country that provides screening tests free of charge for every newborn baby.

Since their first test in Oct 2015, the ZB Foundation has tested over 20,000 babies from their lab in Islamabad and have started to accumulate accurate baby mortality figures. Pakistan has a birth rate of 4.2 million babies a year—the entire total population of New Zealand—so the ZB Foundation has a large job on their hands but their ultimate aim is to reach the Pakistani government and make the newborn screening test a birthright.

Speaking about the Marathon des Sables, Akber said his challenge is not only running the difficult race across the Sahara desert but to also to spread to a global level the importance of medical screening for newborn babies.

"Before September 2018 I had never even run five kilometres, let alone 250km in the Sahara Desert. But this is more of a mental challenge, mind over matter than physical, and I know when I put my mind to this, I have the willpower to keep going," he said.