HIV: India has reason to cheer

Common birth control drug may up HIV risk

India can justifiably draw satisfaction from its performance in the battle against HIV-AIDS. According to an UN Agency on AIDS (UNAIDS) report titled ‘Miles to go closing gaps, breaking barriers, righting injustices,’ in the 2010-17 period, India witnessed a “major reduction” in the number of new HIV infections, AIDS-related deaths and people living with HIV. While new HIV infections dipped from 1.2 lakh in 2010 to 88,000 in 2017 (26.6% decrease), AIDS-related deaths reduced from 1.6 lakh to 69,000 (56.8% decrease). The number of people living with HIV fell from 23 lakh to 21 lakh in the same period. The reduction is significant, especially when one considers the magnitude of the crisis that India confronted when it began combating HIV-AIDS some decades ago. Also, India has done better than the global average in reducing HIV infections and AIDS-related deaths. Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar and Vietnam are other countries whose efforts in fighting the virus have come in for praise from UNAIDS. Pakistan and the Philippines are among the laggards in the fight against the virus. In these countries, the HIV-AIDS epidemic is expanding.

Karnataka finds special mention in the UN study. Advocacy work being done in this state with senior police personnel, sensitisation workshops and the inclusion of HIV and human rights issues in pre-service curricula have led to significant reductions in the arrest of female sex workers, especially during police raids, the study points out. It draws attention to the impact of the Avahan programme, which the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is sponsoring in Karnataka and other states. This programme combines condom provisioning with community empowerment and structural improvements that tackle stigma, violence and unsafe working environments. Such programmes have gone a long way in fighting the spread of HIV-AIDS.

While India deserves applause for its achievements so far in fighting HIV-AIDS, dark clouds loom. As the study points out, decriminalisation of sex work is necessary to further reduce HIV infections. However, India’s anti-trafficking legislation criminalises sex work. This will make sex workers, who are vulnerable to contracting HIV-AIDS, reluctant to seek medical help as they will not want to get arrested. As a result, India’s significant achievements in fighting HIV-AIDS could be reversed in the coming years. De-stigmatisation of HIV-AIDS is also important to fighting this deadly disease. Besides, we need to educate our children on the dangers of having unprotected sex. This requires introduction of sex education in school curricula. However, the BJP-led central government is averse to such education and awareness creation among the public. Such an ostrich-like attitude could set back India’s fight against HIV-AIDS by decades.

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HIV: India has reason to cheer

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