Indian health officials would be well within their right to say ‘we told you so’. For years they have been saying that Unaids figures of the number of Indians living with HIV/AIDS are exaggerated. A new national health survey now proves that the number of those infected in India is not 5.7 million as earlier projected but 2.47 million, a drastic reduction. Unaids has conceded the Indian position which now moves India from having the highest infection rate in the world to third behind South Africa and Nigeria.
Earlier data was based largely on surveys of antenatal clinics and tests on those who came to clinics with symptoms of the virus. This left out large sections of the rural populace and a majority of men. This time around, researchers have gone across the country, not just to clinics but into people’s homes, gathering a much more accurate picture. Fortunately, officials led by health minister Anbumani Ramadoss have decided not to be complacent. Unveiling the National AIDS Control Organisation’s Rs 11,585 crore third phase, he stated that given the sheer numbers, the battle against the virus is still an uphill one. While the prevalence rate may have come down from 0.9 in 2005 to 0.36 now, any slackening of vigilance could send the virus into overdrive. The Indian line of defence has to primarily focus on prevention. Even at subsidised cost, antiretroviral treatment per person is Rs 1,000 per month which few can afford. If the patient develops immunity to the drugs, the cost of the next line of treatment goes up six to 12 times. Prevention can come only with increased awareness. So the proposal to introduce a health awareness package in high schools that speaks, among other issues, of healthy lifestyles is welcome. At present, a mere two students and two teachers in 1.4 lakh schools have been trained to disseminate this package.
At a political level, more can be done to bring the issue out into the open. It is not enough to pay lip service to the fact that we face a very real challenge from the virus, especially since young people are most vulnerable to infection. They are the engines of our economic growth. The maturity shown by both the minister and health officials is an encouraging sign that we might win the battle against HIV/AIDS yet.