Health authorities in India plan to nearly double the country's number of centres providing free drugs and care to people suffering from HIV and AIDS, a senior official said on Friday.
The National AIDS Control Organization, or NACO, has already raised the number of centres offering anti-retroviral medicines in 2006 to 91 from 54, with nine more set to be operational by the end of October, said NACO chief Sujatha Rao.
"We also have drugs available for 10,000 children, and have begun a state-by-state search to identify children suffering from HIV/AIDS," Rao said.
India has drawn increasing criticism from international health groups for failing to meet NACO's own goal of getting free anti-retroviral drugs to 100,000 people by the end of 2005. Rao said NACO - part of India's health ministry - hopes to reach about 85,000 people with drugs and treatment once all the centres are running.
However, ignorance and the stigma about the illness still mean that many infected people do not get the drugs, even if they are free, Rao said.
"Our first priority now will be to launch a massive publicity campaign to let people know that free anti-retroviral drugs for HIV/AIDS are available at these centres, and that they should reach out for free treatment," she said.
The campaign will use newspaper, television and radio advertisements and posters at primary health centres nationwide, giving details about the treatment centre network. It will add to the ministry's drive to promote safe sex and popularize condom use. Most of the centers are in Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Manipur and Karnataka - all states with a high incidence of HIV/AIDS cases.
All the centers will have specially trained doctors, counsellors and laboratory technicians to help patients begin the protracted treatment and monitor the advancement of the disease, Rao said. "But the important task is to get people with AIDS to come to the centres for treatment," she said. "In many cases, people don't even know that they have AIDS."
UNAIDS said in May that India's 5.7 million infections meant the country has the highest number of people in the world living with HIV. But due to its large population of more than a billion, its prevalence rate remains below 1 percent.
A NACO statement said the anti-retroviral therapy being used involves a three-drug combination given to people with advanced AIDS.
Although the drugs do not cure the disease, they help manage its immunity-debilitating effects and suppress the multiplication of the virus.
India still faces budget constraints for AIDS prevention. Health authorities have earmarked US $ 200 million for programs in the 2006-07 financial year.
"This is not enough. But we have to balance what we are spending on AIDS with other health priorities," Rao said.