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Last Updated: Wednesday, 14 July 2004, 03:38 GMT 04:38 UK
Fighting India's Aids apathy

By Sanjoy Majumder
BBC News Online correspondent, in Bombay

HIV positive woman in India - (copyright - UNAids)
India is home to one in seven HIV-positive people
India is looking at ways to contain the spread of the Aids epidemic - but many of its citizens don't want to talk about the issue.

The world's second most populous country has one of the highest infection rates - and more than five million HIV/Aids cases.

To counteract the spread of the virus, the government recently launched its biggest anti-Aids initiative to date.

But efforts are hampered by the fact that most Indians still find sex and Aids taboo subjects.

Stigma

In a corner of the St Katherine's Home in Bombay (Mumbai) a group of children are enjoying their playtime.

Sister Shanti with children at St Katherine's home in Bombay
Caring for Aids orphans in Bombay - India's 'Aids capital'
But despite their singing and laughter these are not typical five-year-olds - all of them are HIV positive.

They were infected by their parents before they were born and were brought here sick and, in some cases, close to death.

In a society where families are the main source of support, they are looked after by nurses and nuns.

Sister Shanti has 30 children in her care at this orphanage.

She says the hardest part for her is when people turn their back on children as young as these.

"It disturbs me when people discriminate against them.

"They have this disease through no fault of their own. They too have a right to live," she says.

Ignorance

For years many in India ignored the growing threat of Aids. Many simply could not imagine it was something that could affect them.

One always hears about Aids and how it's this big problem - I think it's just hype
Sanjay Nirupam
Shiv Sena party
Down a crowded street in the heart of Bombay is the Unison clinic, one of the few in the city that deals with HIV patients.

Ram Kewar is on one of his regular visits - he is among 20 HIV-infected people who come here every day.

He was infected by the virus a few years ago and since then has passed it on to members of his family.

He says he had never even heard of the disease, far less about how it can be transmitted.

"I thought it was just my fate to have got it. It was only much later that I found out why it had happened to me."

The new Indian government has identified Aids as one of its priorities.

But the biggest problem is combating ignorance - and that includes people who are very influential.

Protesters in Bombay campaigning for the use of condoms
Campaigning for the use of condoms in Bombay
Sanjay Nirupam is a politician belonging to the right-wing Shiv Sena party, an ally of the former Indian government and the main opposition party in Bombay.

He believes the issue is being overplayed.

"One always hears about Aids and how it's this big problem. But I have personally never come across anyone with Aids or seen anyone dying of the disease," he says.

"I think it's just hype."

Taboo topic

But it's a problem which is not just confined to the poor or uneducated, or even the conservative.

If a customer refuses to use a condom we return his money and turn him away
Monica
Bombay sex worker
It spreads across Indian society.

In a trendy Bombay cafe young men and women draw on cigarettes and sip long cocktails.

They are part of cosmopolitan Bombay's elite - upwardly mobile, liberal and well-informed.

This is one section of Indians who are more open to talking about Aids - but they would never think of doing so at home.

"It has to do with sex and that's something which is an absolute taboo," says twenty-something Rocky Bhatia.

"Most families simply will not bring it up."

Sign of hope

But there's hope at the other end of the social divide.

Falkland Road right in the heart of the city is Bombay's red light district.

For years activists have worked closely with the sex workers operating out of tiny rooms and filthy alleyways off this busy street.

Sex worker in Bombay
Sex workers: Aware of the pitfalls
It's a move that is now paying dividends.

Monica is a sex-worker who has seen many of her colleagues die.

In the past decade, Aids has claimed the lives of thousands of sex workers. Now they are learning to be more careful.

Volunteers regularly visit every brothel handing out boxes of condoms and carrying out regular medical tests.

"If a customer refuses to use a condom we return his money and turn him away," says Monica.

"It doesn't matter how much money he offers us. Our lives are more important."

It is a small sign of success for a problem that needs to be tackled on a much larger scale.

Otherwise, it is estimated that in the next 10 years India could have more Aids cases than all of Africa.


BBC NEWS: VIDEO AND AUDIO
The BBC's Sanjoy Majumder
"Despite the growing awareness not many here have come to terms with it"



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