India may have only 3.7 million HIV positive people and not 5.7 million as estimated earlier by UNaids in 2006. This revelation from the National AIDS Control Organisation (Naco) is bound to evoke the response ‘we told you so’ from Indian officialdom. For years on end, our officials have been gracing various international forums disputing UN figures on the number of HIV positive people in India, the subtext being that there was a dark plot underfoot to malign India. But the new reduced figure comes with several riders. For one, Naco Director Sujata Rao says that the lower estimates are from preliminary and partial data and, therefore, cannot be used to reach final figures.
The high levels of infection among high-risk groups is still a matter of grave concern. And the seropositivity rate in India is the second highest in the world. So can we afford to let our guard down in the light of the new figures? To do so would be disastrous. The virus is now no longer confined to high-risk groups like sex workers, truck drivers and drug-users. It has entered middle- class homes and the rural countryside. Migrant workers and spouses with multiple partners are infecting people in greater numbers. Many of them do not know that they are HIV positive and have little awareness of preventive measures. Given the shambles that our public health system is in, there is no way we can go the treatment route. The emphasis will have to be on prevention and this means greater and more focused awareness campaigns. We may pride ourselves on superior Indian morals and values, but none of that is going to protect us from the virus. For the message to get across, it is not enough to have the odd celebrity hugging an HIV positive person. There has to be strong political will and intervention. If required, the clergy must step in.
The single most important message should be, whether it is sex or drugs, protect yourself. Though India is a leader in the production of cheap anti-retroviral drugs, it is difficult to ensure that they reach those most in need through our public health system. The decline in numbers should not lull us into complacency. India should seize this as an opportunity to try and put in place mechanisms that will bring down the number of infections even further.