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Inter Press Service
HEALTH-INDIA: Activists Question Govt. AIDS Figures, Strategy
Nadine Oberhuber
November 30, 2000
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 this.

"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 month.

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 India.

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 improvement.

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 ago.

A third of the 229 million U.S. dollars to be spent under the programme, will be used for 'targeted interventions for high-risk groups.'

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 Sangh'.

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." (END/IPS/ap-he/no/rdr/mu/00).