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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2761

Aids: India not the ‘epicentre’

By Tushar Charan - Syndicate Features

In a December 2006 radio interview with the BBC the former US president and Aids campaigner, Bill Clinton, had famously described India as the ‘epicentre’ of Aids pandemic. To bring down the incidence of HIV/Aids infected population in India was a ‘breathtaking challenge’, he told the interviewer. He made his observation though only eight months earlier, in May 2006, the UN had announced that the dubious ‘epicentre’ was in the sub-Saharan Africa and that it is home to two-thirds of the worldwide infected population.

Painting a grim picture of certain situations in India is not unexpected from Clinton, currently engaged in countering another ‘breathtaking challenge’—that of first ensuring nomination of his wife as the Democratic candidate in preference to Obama and others and then getting her elected to the White House. During his last months as US president he used to describe Kashmir as the hottest flash point on earth, ready to spark off a nuclear war in the sub-continent that could engulf a wider region.

To be fair to Clinton, he did mix his warning with some words of encouragement for India, asserting that he was sure that the country would show the same level of commitment and ingenuity in fighting Aids as it did in developing information technology. How apt is the analogy is a different matter but his optimism may have come true much earlier than he or anyone else who shared his views would have believed. And the latest news from India on the Aids front should also be seen in the light of previous reports that actually the rate at which the population was infected with Aids might have peaked in the 1990s itself. That was the first encouraging sign in a quarter of a century.

Based on a fresh UN-backed report, Union Health Minister, Anbumani Ramadoss has said that the number of people living with Aids in India was now estimated to be between 2 and 3.1 million compared to the widely quoted previous estimates of over 5 million. The UN itself had put the figure at 5.7 million, which had placed India as the nation with the largest number of Aids infected population, ahead of South Africa and Nigeria. The more gloomy estimates suggested that India may have a staggering 25 million Aids infected in a few years time. That sounds very grim, as the current worldwide Aids infected people number about 40 million.

The UN made its estimates by using hundreds of surveillance centres to test blood samples of pregnant women and high-risk groups such as drug users over a period of four months. But the estimates had to be revised drastically when a new method was adopted for the estimates of the infected population. A total of 102,000 blood samples were taken from among the general public, instead of the specific groups, and tested for Aids infection. This method is more representative of the population and is believed to yield more accurate information.

The new figures push India into the third spot, behind South Africa and Nigeria. The level of prevalence of Aids in the country of more than a billion people, earlier estimated to be 0.9 per cent of the population, is now taken to be 0.36 per cent.

The drastic fall in the estimates, of course, does not allow any sense of complacency creeping in. Ramadoss himself said that the number was still large and ‘this is very worrying for us’. He was entitled to expressing satisfaction over the fact that the ‘disturbing’ allegation made against India that it has been underestimating prevalence of HIV cases has turned out to be baseless. Lest India was still accused of issuing inaccurate figures, he added that the new estimates were ‘reliable’, calculated with the help of international agencies like the UN and the UN Agency for International Development.

The downward revision of estimates augers well for the country at a time when it is launching a new and expanded phase of its Aids control programme with increased funding. About 80,000 HIV positive patients are said to be receiving free drugs. The government plans to open 250 Aids centres in another two years. By 2012, the government hopes to be able to test 42 million people for HIV virus.

The Indian efforts come along with the pledge of generous monetary support to Aids related programmes that the G-8 nations had made in their 2005 summit. The ultimate goal is and has to be universal access for HIV treatment.

But the programme to control the spread of HIV will perhaps require a fine balance between both prevention and curative programmes. The former include propagation of ‘safe sex’ and the latter depends on greater availability of antiretroviral drugs to the infected persons, almost entirely belonging to the poorer sections of the society.

For all the efforts being made by the government and NGOs, Aids awareness still remains low in the country. In the most vulnerable sections—the poor and the illiterate—more than half the women know nothing about AIDs. There are reports that the Aids cases in backward areas of north India may be rising.

Another unfortunate aspect of this infection is the ‘stigma’ that the patients and even their children have to bear. Some doctors and hospitals continue to refuse to treat the Aids patients and schools shun infected children. Such reports suggest that even the so-called educated sections do not know much about the dreaded disease the cure for which the world has been searching, at last with some success, for over 20 years.

- Syndicate Features -

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