A thorough recount of India’s HIV/AIDS population this year shows that the number of HIV positive people may be as low as 3.5 million, down from UNAIDS 2006 estimate of 5.7 million. The National AIDS Control Organisation put India’s HIV/AIDS population in 2006 at 5.2 million.
Health minister Anbumani Ramadoss said: “Though the data has not been collated yet, trends in highly-prevalent states show that the numbers may drop this year. What I can say now is that this year’s data is the most representative ever, with people being tested anonymously for HIV/AIDS from 1,164 sentinel sites across the country,” says Ramadoss. The estimates for 2007 are expected to be ready by the end of June.
The estimate of 3.5 million echoes the National Family Health Survey-3 findings, which put the number of HIV positive people at 2.8 million.
NACO director general Sujatha Rao says a decline is possible this year, but not very drastic. “The lower estimates are from preliminary and partial data that has not been collated yet and we cannot use it to reach final estimates. Although prevalence in antenatal clinics has shown a decline in some southern states, high levels of infection among the groups at higher risk, such as men who have sex with men, and Injecting Drug Users are of concern,” says Rao.
She says that while data does suggest that the HIV prevalence levels are declining among sex workers in areas in the southern states of Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, overall prevalence among this group continues to be high.
UNAIDS has had to revise its estimates in the past. A 2004 recount in Kenya led to its HIV prevalence halving - from UNAIDS's 2001 estimate of 15 per cent to 6.7 per cent.
International agencies have consistently accused India of playing down its AIDS data.
A UNAIDS report in 2002 showed over 3 lakh AIDS deaths in India in 1999, when the number of recorded deaths was 11,000. In 2002, the US Intelligence Community Assessment (ICA) claimed India was likely to have 20 to 25 million HIV positive people by 2010.
Last year, UNAIDS said the number was 5.7 million,half a million more than NACO's estimate of 5.2 million.
This time, with international experts on board, India is hoping to put the controversy to rest.
Peter Berman, economist at the World Bank, said, "We should endorse the new data. But whatever the lower numbers are, there is no reason for complacency."
On whether this would affect the hundreds of crores in funds committed by international donors for the third phase of the National AIDS Control Programme, he said, "I don't see any sign of that happening yet."
(With inputs from Amitava Sanyal)