AIDS – Are We Really Safe?

worldaidscollage.jpgFor those of us who did not turn on our television sets, did not open the newspapers and missed the large banners saying “Fight AIDS- Keep the promise”, it was World AIDS Day only two days ago, i.e. the 1st of December. And for those of us who did in fact turn on our television sets, open the newspapers and did in fact read those banners and hoardings………well is that all you intend to do? If this was the year 2006, I would have also probably drawn a blank if someone had asked me that question. I think it was the articles that I had read out of sheer curiosity on the Internet which made me sit up and take notice…….finally! I always knew that AIDS was one of the major problems being faced by India. What I didn’t know was that, the exact number of people infected with HIV in India is a mind- numbing 2.5 million.

HIV emerged in India later than it did in many other countries. Infection rates soared throughout the 1990s, and have increased further in recent years. The crisis continues to deepen, as it becomes clear that the epidemic is affecting all sections of the society and not just the groups like – sex workers and truck drivers- with which it was originally associated. In 1998, one author observed:

“HIV infection is now common in India; exactly what the prevalence is, is not really known, but it can be stated without any fear of being wrong that infection is widespread… it is spreading rapidly into those segments that society in India does not recognise as being at risk. AIDS is coming out of the closet.” 1

There are a few more facts that need to be brought to the reader’s notice: In terms of AIDS cases, the most recent estimate comes from August 2006, at which stage the total number of AIDS cases reported to NACO (National AIDS Control Organization) was 124,995. Of this number, 29% were women, and 36% were under the age of 30. These figures are mere estimates and not entirely accurate as many HIV cases go unreported.

Why would a person infected with HIV not come out in the open, you say? Well, there is another harsh reality we need to come to terms with- even now when the epidemic has spread to almost all sections of the society, the general population still looks at it as “something that would never reach our family”. HIV infected people face discrimination, are rejected by families, spouses and communities, refused medical treatment, and horrifyingly in some cases even denied their last rites! Just the other day I read in the newspaper that in Tamil Nadu a 3 year old boy was left hanging from a tree in a sack for 7 hours. The reason? He was HIV positive.

Hasn’t anything been done to help the situation, you ask? After the first few cases reported of HIV by sex workers from Chennai (Tamil Nadu) in 1986, the Government in response launched the National Aids Control Programme in 1992. It was to oversee the formulation of policies, prevention work and control programmes relating to HIV and AIDS. In 2001, the government adopted the National AIDS Prevention and Control Policy. Despite a large number of people being infected with HIV everyday, a study released at the beginning of 2006 suggested that the HIV infection rate had recently fallen in southern India, the region that had been hit hardest by AIDS. Some AIDS activists however feel otherwise: “It is the reverse. All the NGOs I know have recorded increases in the number of people accepting help because of HIV. I am really worried that we are just burying our head in the sand over this.”

Anjali Gopalan, the Naz Foundation, Delhi.

I know you might be thinking about the point of this article and all the data that I have presented. Well, the point behind it all, is that I strongly feel that the youth can make a huge difference to this situation. The 2 main reasons which we can attribute for the spread of HIV amongst youth are (a) having unprotected sex with an infected person and (b) sharing a needle (shooting drugs) with someone who’s infected. At the outset we must accept that we are all very vulnerable to this infection. In one moment of misadventure or carelesness you can become a victim. Having said this it is important to understand that an infected person must be treated with dignity. However this does not dilute the age old saying, “Prevention is better than cure”.

Therefore all necessary efforts must be made to make the youth aware of HIV and its consequences. More importantly how to contribute in preventing its spread.

Anam Mittra