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HEALTH-INDIA: Teaching Safe Sex to Long-Distance Truck Drivers


MUMBAI, India, Sep 26 (IPS) - Under the shade of a large tree, a group of men drink tea and play cards at the end of their long journeys to India's largest truck terminus, in this western city.

They are soon joined by a young woman who begins asking them questions that they have got used to by now.

"Does a mosquito bite cause AIDS? " she asks, and all of them nod that it does. "What can you do if you get HIV?" she asks again.

"Commit suicide," mutters one of the men.

This is an AIDS education class in progress for truck drivers at the Cotton Green truck terminus where, every day, some 5,000 trucks loaded with goods arrive from across the country.

The classes were begun three years ago by the non-governmental organisation (NGO), Population Services International (PSI).

According to Arupa Shukla, who was asking the questions and heads the PSI project, long-distance truck drivers are more vulnerable to the AIDS virus because they travel a lot, often not going home for months on end.

Many of the drivers have come forward for voluntary HIV tests. About 10 percent of the 800 drivers tested so far, have turned out to be HIV- positive, she says.

While most of the drivers may not visit commercial sex workers, they do have casual sex and see no risk in this, she adds.

The NGO has contacted 65,000 truck drivers so far and has treated more than 6,000 of them for various ailments. It also works in another big truck terminus in Mumbai, where an estimated 2,000 trucks arrive every day.

The Indian government's National Aids Control Organisation, better known by its acronym NACO, is backing similar projects in other big cities.

The British government's Department for International Development (DFID) is also funding AIDS education schemes for long-distance truck drivers in India. Some of these are located close to the India-Bangladesh and India-Nepal borders.

"We have never heard of AIDS. What do we have to do with condoms, we all are married. We don't go to other women," says one of the drivers. Most of the truck drivers here come here from the western coastal state of Gujarat, western Rajasthan and northern Haryana.

During one of the AIDS education sessions, the drivers flip through pamphlets given by PSI volunteers. Many of them said they did not use condoms. "Mazaa nahin aata," (it is not fun), they answer in chorus, when asked why.

Most of them came to know about AIDS only after coming to Mumbai. There is little information available back at their homes in the small towns of India, they say.

A driver from Rajasthan says that HIV destroys the body's capacity to fight disease and is caused by unprotected sex with a woman who is infected.

Shukla explains to them, using flip charts, how the AIDS virus spreads and gives a demonstration of how condoms must be used. A PSI doctor will later visit the terminus to advise those with any ailment. Free medicines are given to the patients.

The truck drivers rarely visit hospitals and instead, seek the help of quacks and home remedies to cure sexually-transmitted diseases, she says.

The drivers are also shown short films on HIV and condom use in a recreation room, which was set up by the terminus authorities. Condom vending machines at the terminus dispense a piece for a rupee (less than three U.S. cents) each.

As the day progresses, the PSI volunteers, identifiable by their lemon yellow jackets, fan out across the sprawling terminus, stopping by at trucks where drivers and their helpers are cleaning the vehicles.

Prakash Singh, another truck driver from Rajasthan, says he has heard about AIDS but is not sure how it is caused.

A PSI survey of long-distance truck drivers last year, found that almost a fifth of them never used condoms, while another 70 percent, preferred not to use these.

The investigation, which covered 200 truck drivers from 13 states, found that only four out of 10 drivers knew that there was no cure for AIDS.

Many drivers at the Mumbai terminus say they do not know where condoms are available and how these can protect them from HIV.

"We don't read roadside hoardings and many of us don't even read newspapers, so we don't know about this disease," says Pappu Khan, who works as cleaner at the terminus.

"I don't visit the red-light area, but many of the men head straight for that place once they get here. Now because of PSI they are hesitant as they are afraid of getting AIDS," he adds.

According to Shukla, most AIDS education projects for truck drivers are located along highways, where the "attention levels" of the drivers are very low.

"At the terminus, they are relaxed and give you quality time, and they retain more of the messages imparted to them," she says. The NGO tries to maintain contact with the same groups of truck drivers who make repeated visits to the city.


Copyright © 2000 -Inter Press Service, Publisher. All rights reserved to Inter Press Service. Reproduced with permission.Reproduction of this article (other than one copy for personal reference) must be cleared through the Inter Press Service, IPS-ONLINE, World Desk via Panisperna 207 00184 Rome, Italy. Email IPS visit Inter Press Service.

Information in this article was accurate in September 26, 2000. The state of the art may have changed since the publication date. This material is designed to support, not replace, the relationship that exists between you and your doctor. Always discuss treatment options with a doctor who specializes in treating HIV.