NEW DELHI, Nov 30 (IPS) - On the eve of World AIDS Day Dec. 1,
the Indian government has claimed that HIV spread has been
arrested in the country, but not many are willing to believe
"The rate of spread of HIV/AIDS is not so fast as previously
projected and there is evidence that it has reached a plateau,"
Health Minister C. P. Thakur told a press conference here.
Thakur, however, could not support his claim with statistics.
He said the government's National AIDS Control Organisation
(NACO) was putting together the findings of a 'Sentinel
Survey', which will not be available for at least another
The minister said questions were being asked in India whether
HIV actually causes AIDS. But the government does not accept
the view held by some that there is no link between HIV and
AIDS. "We do not subscribe to this," he said.
For once, the government did not find itself directly
challenged by the joint U.N. anti-AIDS programme, UNAIDS, which
for years has been saying that HIV is spreading rapidly in
In its 'AIDS Epidemic Update' released Tuesday, UNAIDS
projected that 5.8 million people could be living with HIV in
South and South- east Asia and 780,000 die of AIDS by December.
But the document did not give separate figures for India.
In July, a UNAIDS study estimated over 300,000 AIDS-related
deaths in India last year alone and that more than four million
Indians were HIV positive. The Indian government then protested
loudly, challenging the reliability of the UNAIDS statistics.
According to latest NACO figures, 0.7 per cent of the adult
population of the country, or 3.7 million people, are HIV
positive. Nearly 90 percent of these people are between 18 and
40 years old. Half of the new HIV cases are being reported
among people below the age of 25 years.
But public health activists in India are also questioning the
government's HIV/AIDS figures and allege that these are being
manipulated to satisfy multilateral donors.
They point out that NACO is still to complete a 65-city
HIV/AIDS survey begun six years ago. Studies have been
completed in just 16 cities.
They also question NACO figures published earlier this year,
which show that India's north-eastern border state of Manipur
now has the lowest HIV prevalence in the country. For years,
Manipur, which borders Burma, was shown by NACO to have the
highest HIV/AIDS prevalence, attributed to the large number of
injecting drug users (IDUs) among its youth.
Public health activists also express the fear that
preoccupation with the well-funded AIDS/HIV programme has led
to the neglect of far more serious public health problems in a
country where basic health services are badly in need of
Rights activists are also unhappy with NACO's strategy that is
"stigmatising" sections of the population and creating an AIDS
scare in the country. The second phase of the NACO programme,
funded by the World Bank, the U.S. Agency for International
Development (USAID) and the British government's Department for
International Development (DfID), among others, began a year
A third of the 229 million U.S. dollars to be spent under the
programme, will be used for 'targeted interventions for
But last week, five leading non-governmental organisations
(NGOs) accused NACO's programmes for the high-risk groups as a
violation of human rights.
"These programmes result in the stigmatisation of the so-
called high-risk groups and open them to discrimination even
though there is little scientific data or statistical evidence
to show their actual status," said Purushottaman Mulloli of
Joint Action Council Kannur (JACK).
The high-risks include truck drivers, sex workers, street
children, homosexuals and indigenous people. By labelling them
thus and subjecting them to "unscientific" programmes, NACO is
violating their human rights, he said.
Instead of educational programmes for people supposed to have
high-risk behaviour, the government "should create mass
awareness against AIDS", says Manoj Pandey of 'Himalaya Seva
The government's National Family Health Survey published mid-
November, found low general awareness of AIDS/HIV among
Indians. Only four out of every ten women in the reproductive
age had even heard about it, the survey found.
Critics say that this shows that NACO's decade-old AIDS
awareness campaigns have not had much impact.
What is worse, says A.K Arun of 'Azadi Bachao Andolan', is that
by focusing on HIV/AIDS, the government is "denying attention
to much more serious problems in a country where 50 percent of
deaths are attributable to malnutrition."