Hundreds in India's northeast, whose large number of drug users have sparked fears of a worsening AIDS epidemic, pledged on Wednesday to step up the fight against HIV by spreading awareness about it.
School children, health workers, people living with HIV/AIDS and rehabilitated drug addicts marched through key streets in the states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura to mark the World AIDS Day.
"The slogan this year is 'Universal Access and Human Rights', highlighting the need for easy availability of medicines for people living with the virus. We are committed to catering to the basic needs and ensuring access to drugs," said Assam Health Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma.
"Global leaders have pledged to work towards universal access to HIV and AIDS treatment, prevention and care, recognising these as fundamental human rights and we in Assam are committed to carrying out the theme of the World AIDS Day in letter and spirit," Sarma told IANS.
Some 2.5 million Indians are HIV positive. Northeast accounts about 45,000 such people.
"We have to take urgent steps to ensure that anti-retroviral drugs are made available more easily," said Jahnabi Goswami, president of the Indian Network of Positive People.
Goswami is one of the few women in India fighting to raise awareness about the disease and one of an even smaller number to have publicly declared that she is HIV-positive.
Assam has about 4,000 registered HIV positive people.
India's northeast borders the heroin-producing Golden Triangle of Laos, Myanmar and Thailand and has high rates of intravenous drug use - a key cause of HIV infection here.
Health workers also emphasised the need to educate sex workers following surveys that suggest most prostitutes in the region were engaging in unprotected sex.
Despite the efforts of NGOs and pressure groups, government agencies in the region have so far not managed to curb either drug addiction or prostitution.