AIDS IN INDIA
Most healthy Indians are vaguely aware of AIDS as a dangerous disease. To most of us they simply mean the roadside billboard we see telling us about how to prevent ADDS from spreading. But in reality, it has affected millions of people in India and its spread has reached epidemic proportions. India has the second most number of people infected with HIV next only to South Africa.
HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) is a virus that causes AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome). It infects cells of the human immune system destroying the body’s ability to fight infections and certain cancers. AIDS infected people become vulnerable to viruses and bacteria that usually do not affect healthy people.
India’s first AIDS patients came in 1986 from Chennai, from amongst the commercial sex workers. At that time, it was thought that screening foreigners, particularly students could help restrict the spread of the disease, however, later as and when more cases came forward, other causes were also paid attention to. Blood banks were surveyed and awareness drives were initiated.
By now thanks to intensive campaigning and awareness programmes most people know that AIDS spreads through unprotected sex, from mother to child and through blood transfusion and infected needles. Besides identifying and implementing effective programmes to prevent AIDS, an equally difficult task lies in dealing with the stigma and discrimination associated with the disease.
People who are most exposed to the HTV virus are commercial sex workers, drug users and migrants who have indiscriminate sexual habits. Migration, multiple and unsafe .sexual relations, increasing number of infections in antenatal women has led to a rise in the spread of the disease. AIDS is also moving from urban to rural areas.
Heterosexual contact remains the most predominant mode of HTV transmission, followed by injecting of drugs. AIDS caused by blood transfusions and blood products have been controlled to a great extent with blood safety measures and precautions.
AIDS, besides being fatal, is generally perceived as a disease that affects people who are living in ‘sin’. The Indian society treats people who have acquired AIDS as social outcasts and discriminates against them at work place, in communities and even within the family. An AIDS patient has to suffer not only his difficult medical condition; he is further traumatized by the rejection he faces from his friends and colleagues.
Due to the stigma attached to AIDS, good health policies failed to be effective and HTV infected people are forced to live with poor medical aid and care. In fact, the stigma lies so deep that even health care staff shows a negative attitude when it comes to treating AIDS patients. This has led to many patients hiding their HTV positive status.
Creating more awareness and education seems to be the only answer in preventing the spread of the disease as well as stopping negative social reactions to it. India with its vast population speaking different languages presents a difficult platform for such a massive educational programme. Efforts have to be made not only at the national level but also at the state and the local level.
In 1987, when AIDS had just started spreading, a National AIDS Control Programme was launched. Under the programme, blood and blood products were put under surveillance, and health education programmes were initiated. In 1992 the National AIDS Control organization (NACO) was established that carried out India’s National AIDS Programme, including formulation of policy, prevention and control programmes.
A National Aids Control Project was also set up to provide the administrative and technical basis for programme management. State AIDS bodies in 25 states and seven union territories were also put in place. The project helped in improving blood safety in hospitals and blood banks.
The second phase of the National AIDS Control Programme began from 1999 to 2004. NACO provided funds to state AIDS control societies to support blood safety, youth campaigns, VCT, care and support and social phase of AIDS control was more encompassing with programmes that sought to promote cooperation among public, private and voluntary sectors.
India needs more than one approach to handle the AIDS epidemic. Awareness stands as the foremost need of the hour. There is a need to have more and more groups of people like the youth, college students and medical forums doing their bit to spread the word that AIDS is not a dirty word.