Sachin Kalbag, DNAINDIA.COM, Wednesday, August 16, 2006
WASHINGTON, DC: A new World Bank report on HIV-AIDS prevalence and prevention could set the alarm bells ringing in India. The report, released at the 16th International AIDS Conference in Toronto, Canada, on Monday says that even though India has made considerable progress in slowing the spread of AIDS, it still has between 55 lakh and 60 lakh HIV-positive individuals accounting for nearly 60 per cent of Asia’s 1 crore infected. It also classifies the prevalence of AIDS in India as a “severe epidemic”.
The report says that, in fact, just eight states — Maharashtra, Goa, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Nagaland, Mizoram, Karnataka and Manipur — account for 70 per cent of all of India’s HIV cases. One of the prime reasons for the rapid spread of HIV infections is homosexuality, according to the authors of the report. Drug usage by injections and prostitution are the other main reasons for India’s high HIV prevalence, the report said.
Julian Schweitzer, director at the World Bank’s South Asian Region’s Human Development Division said, “Very little of India’s national resources are being directed to high-risk groups such as men having sex with men, drug users and female commercial sex workers.”
Co-author and epidemiologist Dr David Wilson said, “We can avert further spread of the epidemic by protecting high-risk, vulnerable groups.” He commended India for stabilising the spread of the disease, especially in Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu, saying, “Some of the work initiated in Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra 15 years ago is bearing fruit. There is also an affidavit filed in one of India’s High Courts to legalise homosexuality. Once that happens, we will be able to focus our energies on this often ignored, yet high-risk group.”
Sujatha Rao, director general of the New Delhi-based National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO), agreed. “The main three high-risk groups — homosexuals, drug users and commercial sex workers — are outlawed in India,” she said. “Therefore, the legal impediments are severe. We need to come upfront on these.” She added that homosexuality is a crime according to Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, and gay men are often the subject of police brutality which prevents some of the HIV-positive individuals to report the infection. “We also need to work on increasing the capacity of our NGOs on this front.”
Part of the capacity issue is money. While the World Bank has lent $380 million to India’s AIDS initiatives, the US-based Gates Foundation, led by Microsoft chairman Bill Gates is looking for the right AIDS projects in India to donate part of its $3 billion endowment it has to spend this year alone according to US law.
Wilson said that the report, while making people aware of the scale of the epidemic, also suggests that a great amount of progress has been made to reduce its spread. “We have localised epidemics, not generalised ones,” he said. “The good news is that we are facing a preventable epidemic.”