As every World Aids Day (December 1) comes and goes, we hear platitudes about the need to fight the disease. Anti-retroviral therapy (ART), prevention, counselling and safer behaviour through increased advocacy and improved distribution of condoms have been instrumental in significantly reducing the number of cases in India. More people, especially the youth, are now aware of the dangers involved in unprotected sex and also in sharing of needles for drug administration. Early 2000 projections estimated that there would be 20-25 million Aids cases by 2010. However, today there are 2.3 million cases.
While it is true that HIV infections have gone down 56% during the last decade, we still have the world's third largest number of people living with HIV/Aids. For them, the only hope is ART. The government is doing its best to ensure that as many people as possible get ART. Additionally, comprehensive prevention strategies including continued efforts to reduce high-risk behaviour, increasing use and access to existing prevention technologies like condoms are being scaled up. The implementation of ART may have challenges, including logistical limitations, potential changes in risk-taking behaviours, sub-optimal ART adherence, risk compensation and cost and these would need to be addressed.
While efforts must be made for curative care for HIV/Aids, we must ensure that infections do not take place as much as possible. This is can be done by introducing effective new biomedical tools for prevention of HIV eg a vaccine.
Scientists across the world have made progress towards research and development of these new biomedical tools and India is ideally suited for the research and development of these. The government continues to stress on scientific research and international collaboration in both its globalisation strategy and its plans to take a more active role in addressing domestic and international public health challenges.
We must redouble our efforts to find a vaccine because it can keep our people safe. I feel that we should incorporate the process of research for an Aids vaccine in our five-year plans. I would be happy to see more debates in Parliament and other forums on this issue.
Policy-makers have a national responsibility towards a healthier nation. Let us not forget that it is our young people who are driving the engine of growth. To do so, they have to have not just a healthy environment but they have to be in the prime of health themselves.
India being the world's largest and most-populous democracy has within it a diversity of resources and the possibility to demonstrate long-term commitment and adherence to the search for a vaccine. I am glad to see that all governments that have been in power have had an unwavering commitment towards a preventive vaccine for HIV. We need this political commitment for HIV vaccine research and development to be stronger in the long term. This would ensure continuity and commitment to the cause. Our scientists will then be on their way to finding a preventive vaccine for this disease soon. If India takes the lead in this, it will soon translate into benefits not just economically but also socially.
Oscar Fernandes is a Member of Parliament
The views expressed by the author are personal