Sunday was World AIDS Day, and the day after, people have woken up to reports about how the world and India spent the day, observed each year in memory of the millions who have died and in solidarity with the many more who are infected. December 1 is a time when communities, voluntary organizations and governments across the globe renew their pledge to contain the spread of the virus and remove the discrimination against HIV positive people in most countries.
The virus was first detected in India 16 years ago, simultaneously in three individuals in Bombay, Madras and Calcutta. All three cities have since changed their names but most people living in them are still to change their attitude to the growing number of persons with HIV and AIDS. And now, cities and districts of all states have people living with the virus (Arunachal Pradesh was the last “bastion” to fall about three years ago). Very few of them are lucky to be able to lead a normal life after their status is known, unlike in most developed countries.
The problems that such persons face — the latest United Nations AIDS programme and World Health Organization update on the epidemic put the global total at 42 million, up by five million in a year — have prompted international organizations to adopt “live and let live” as this year’s World AIDS Day theme.
Unfortunately, the fact that most of the four million infections in India have been due to unprotected promiscuous sex and needle-sharing by intravenous drug users is a basic premise for ostracism by Indian society. What people tend to forget is that a large number among the infected was partially or totally ignorant about the virus and its consequences at the time they were infected.
And what about the increasing number of innocent women (wives) and children who, through no fault of their own, are infected with the virus' Countrywide, the second and third waves of the infection are claiming growing numbers of such people. States like Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Manipur, Nagaland, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh are having to handle a surge of gynaecological and paediatric cases.
The situation in West Bengal may not be that bad, but consider this. The number of HIV positive children in the paediatric department of one hospital alone has multiplied 12 times in under two years. The paediatric ward at Calcutta Medical College and Hospital had two infected children two years ago. It now has 45, according to doctors in the department. As much as 75 per cent of them have got the virus from their mothers, while the rest, mainly haemophiliac and thalassaemic children, became HIV positive after transfusion with contaminated blood.
Do it now
Even though the chances of both kinds of transmission can be reduced through medication and thorough screening of blood, implementation of these measures continues to falter owing to lapses in the system.
At a recent meeting with the media, HIV positive persons related how they were discriminated against at leading government hospitals in the city. A HIV positive woman (whose husband was also HIV positive), when admitted for master title plat, was treated so badly that she was forced to leave the hospital before the treatment was over. Medicine and food would be thrown at her while the nurses remarked: “What’s the use of taking medicine — you’ll die anyway. It is better that you leave the ward and not pose a danger to other patients.” And this happened after the health department claimed to have held sensitization workshops with doctors and paramedics, where they were apparently told that universal precautionary methods (wearing gloves, proper disposal of waste, and so on) with every patient would prevent nosocomial infections.
Attitudes will not change overnight. But greater awareness, proper knowledge and the influence of prominent people and the media, could help. And let it not be another 16 years later.