A dramatic drop in the number of AIDS cases in India has been a cause to celebrate for many.
Since the first case was detected in 1986, the HIV virus spread with alarming rapidity in both urban and rural areas.
Stark projections estimated that there could be 25 million AIDS sufferers by 2010. But according to an estimate by the National Intelligence Council in the US, the country currently has only 1.5 million cases.
The Indian federal government backs this up by saying that HIV infections have declined nationwide by about 56 percent during the last decade.
Health officials also claim a significant drop in the number of AIDS-related deaths.
But not everyone is entirely convinced.
“I am not saying the numbers are fudged,” says James Veliath of the Naz Foundation India Trust, a New Delhi-based NGO. “But my contention is that the official figures are on the conservative side.
“There could be many more cases since most studies and reports, I fear, are based on assumptions and presumptions.”
However, he does concede that anti-AIDS campaigns have yielded results.
Veliath, who has worked with the health office of the Catholic bishops’ conference, also says the Church has played a significant part.
“It circulated the ABC formula - A for Abstinence, B for Be Faithful and a very silent C for Condom,” he says. “Sometimes we faced problems when we tried to propagate the C part.
“Actually, A and B are the safest and the most efficient ways to prevent HIV infection,” he adds.
Federal health minister Ghulam Nabi Azad attributes the fall in cases to the rollout of ART, anti-retroviral therapy, which was made free of charge in 2004.
But the battle is not yet won. According to health officials, there are six states – Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Nagaland and Manipur – where prevalence is still high.
One woman activist in Manipur says the spread there is chiefly due to drug abuse, with an infection rate of 32 per cent among regular drug users.
So NGOs, health workers and the government need to keep providing more treatment facilities to keep pace with the problem.
And there are other, uniquely Indian factors that pose challenges. “The vast size of the country with its diverse cultural background and certain peculiarities including terrorism and the Maoists menace make it difficult to examine the effects of HIV and do proper research,” says a senior health official.
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