At least one minister in the Narendra Modi government does not seem to have taken the PM’s exhortation to refrain from speaking off the cuff too seriously. And that surprisingly is Union health minister Harsh Vardhan — a doctor himself — with his odd remarks on HIV and ways to prevent the disease from spreading. Dr Vardhan astonished many when in an interview to a foreign paper, he spoke about how the emphasis in the fight against HIV/AIDS should go beyond condoms and focus on purity in relationships and Indian values.
It would appear that he has forgotten that the aggressive promotion of condoms is one reason why the seropositivity rate in India has fallen and it is now behind Nigeria and South Africa in the number of people living with HIV/AIDS. Abstinence and cultural values have not proved any protection against infection as studies have shown. Women are at particular risk as even if they are monogamous, there is no guarantee that their husbands won’t pick up the infection elsewhere and pass it on to them. Such remarks coming from the person who is in charge of health in India are worrying.
The National AIDS Control Organisation has been putting up a sterling fight against the infection using all means available, the principal and cheapest option being condoms. There have been such damaging remarks earlier too by people in high office, notable among them a former HRD minister in an earlier NDA government who expressed the opinion that foreign aid was responsible for AIDS. It would appear that here Dr Vardhan is seeking to cater to the obscurantists who have maintained that cultural purity is a safeguard against many ills, which they feel are western imports or which only affect those whose morals are suspect.
The minister’s statements could well be taken to heart by some policy-makers and even those indulging in risky sexual behaviour as some sort of immunity against infection. This could be fatal to India’s drive against HIV/AIDS. A similar remark made by a former South African president set the country’s anti-HIV programme back considerably. Dr Vardhan’s ill-thought-out remarks similarly have the potential to reverse the gains made against the disease. This certainly is not what the doctor ordered.