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Last Updated: Friday, 25 July, 2003, 22:57 GMT 23:57 UK
India and Aids - dodging the issue?
By Jonathan Beale
BBC correspondent in Delhi

In one of Delhi's charity-run Aids care centres, 20 HIV-infected men, women and children suffer in secrecy and in silence.

Aids victim Koushalya
Aids victim Koushalya - infected by her husband
They're the lucky ones.

Most HIV victims in India are shunned by a society that would rather ignore the virus.

But India cannot afford to do that anymore.

Over four-and-a-half million people are now living with HIV/Aids.

Irfarn Khan, the centre's co-ordinator, says it's about time his country confronted the stigma.

"What we do here is, when the client is admitted, we try and tell the family also that it is as normal as any other infection and the way we are dealing with it - the same things can be done back at home," Dr Khan says.

"That's where we are plugging the gap between information and trying to bring them back to their families."

Reluctance to speak

It is aid agencies, rather than the government, that are raising public awareness.

The United Nations is warning that without a rapid stepping up of the country's Aids-prevention programme, the epidemic could spread to tens of millions of Indians.

Doctor and patient
Doctors could face a huge increase in HIV patients in India

But even politicians who are supposed to be highlighting the problems of Aids seem reluctant to promote sex education.

And that is causing growing frustration among Aids-awareness campaigners.

Campaigners are also coming under pressure from conservative groups in India who see talk of condoms and safe sex as a western solution to a mainly western problem - promiscuity.

'Learn some lessons'

But even married couples in India are not immune to the disease.

Koushalya knew little about Aids until she was infected by her husband.

Doctor Irfarn Khan
Doctor Irfarn Khan - HIV is 'as normal as any other infection'

She says its time to get Aids out into the open, and learn some lessons from South Africa.

"Nelson Mandela raised the profile of Aids in South Africa by appearing at conferences and talking on the media about sex education, awareness and condoms," Koushalya says.

"We in India have got to do the same."

There is hope.

Five hundred politicians from all parties - from the prime minister to regional representatives - are meeting in Delhi this weekend to discuss a strategy to combat the virus.

Congress MP Oscar Fernandes knows the stakes are high.

"We have 10% of the world's Aids affected people. Going by the percentage it may not be a problem as of today but going by the population of 1 billion and the way it multiplies it may definitely be a major threat for the health of the nation."

This weekend's conference is a significant step forward.

But it will count for little unless words are soon matched by deeds.

The BBC's Johnathan Beale
"If you're HIV in India expect to suffer in secret and in silence"

India sees big HIV/Aids rise
25 Jul 03  |  South Asia
India fights to promote condoms
15 Jul 03  |  South Asia
India 'can prevent Aids epidemic'
14 Nov 02  |  South Asia
India Aids awareness urged
26 Nov 02  |  Health

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