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Tuesday, 22 August, 2000, 14:46 GMT 15:46 UK
India's growing Aids problem
Aids patient
Aids patients are ostracised by society
By Mike Wooldridge in Andhra Pradesh

India is now vying with South Africa as the country with the largest number of HIV infected people.

Recent surveys in states like Andhra Pradesh have revealed an alarming increase in the number of those infected with the virus.

But many people still believe that HIV and Aids may not affect India in a significant way.

There is so much belief and faithful partnership

Dr Kutikapala Suria Rao
Vishakhapatnam-based community medicine specialist Dr Kutikapala Suria Rao ascribes this to the faith in family culture of India.

"There is so much belief and faithful partnership - one wife, one husband system - and there are not multiple sexual partners in the country," he says.

"Added to that, because of the long heritage, culture and values....So they thought they could avoid Aids epidemic in this land."

Truckers at risk

But Aids is already a serious problem and among those considered particularly at risk are the country's 5 million truck drivers.

They pick up women along the highways, putting themselves at risk of infection with HIV.

Health advice clinic
India's truckers are particularly vulnerable
Prostitutes seem to know the risks of Aids in their business, but some of them give in to customers who refuse to wear condoms.

The prostitutes say their clients come from all walks of life - from labourers and auto-rickshaw drivers to college students.

Middle class convictions about it being someone else's problem may clearly be misplaced.

Specialists say HIV and Aids have moved beyond the high risk groups in India. They are in the general population.

Attitudes towards Aids

Many of those who show up at hospitals across India as having the HIV virus in various forms of screening, are not at present being told.

Despite the risk that someone could carry on infecting, the argument is that people have been ostracised and driven to suicide over Aids tests results.

Added to this are the problems pertaining to the reliability of the tests and counselling to the patients.

Aids awareness session
Aids is subtly introduced at health awareness sessions
But clearly, as the scale of the problem grows, this whole question becomes more acute.

Indian Health Minister Dr CP Thakur says he recognises that and he wants to see the 'don't tell' policy changed.

"It should have been done earlier, yes. But people are very scared of this isolation. When Aids victims used to be told that a particular person is suffering from that particular disease he used to be discarded by society."

For attitudes to change, a general awareness towards the HIV and Aids is necessary.

But at numerous Aids awareness drives in Andhra Pradesh, the subject is introduced very subtly. Talk of general health matters and hygiene turns ultimately to Aids.

If my husband becomes infected and I shared the same glass of water with him, or even talked to him, I might get infected too

A woman
Not surprising then that some people are still confused.

"If my husband becomes infected and I shared the same glass of water with him, or even talked to him, I might get infected too," a woman said after an awareness session.

Such misunderstanding, coupled with myths and superstition is fuelling attitudes towards Aids, not just in rural Andhra Pradesh but in other parts of India too.

Experts say that India needs to make up for the lost time, if it wants to avoid Africa's fate.

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See also:

15 Dec 99 | South Asia
India launches Aids action plan
10 Nov 99 | South Asia
India 'will be top Aids nation'
02 Dec 99 | South Asia
India's temple to the Aids goddess
15 Jan 99 | South Asia
India's HIV highway
31 Aug 99 | South Asia
Aids conference targets young men
15 Jan 99 | Sci/Tech
HIV vaccine breakthrough
01 Oct 99 | South Asia
India Aids alert
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