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Pitch for stricter HIV curbs in Bengal

New Delhi, Nov. 30: Bengal is among 10 states mainly in eastern and northern India that now account for over half of all new HIV infections among adults in India and may require stronger HIV control efforts, a Union health ministry agency said today.

The National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO), releasing its latest surveillance report, said Bengal, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Odisha, Gujarat, Punjab, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand are low prevalence states that now make up 57 per cent of new HIV infections in India.

The report highlights a 57 per cent reduction in new HIV infections over the last decade, but the decline has significantly slowed over the past five years — the estimated number of new HIV infections in adults reduced from about 274,000 in 2000 to 123,000 in 2007 to 116,000 in 2011.

The number of new infections in Assam, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Meghalaya, Odisha and Sikkim has steadily increased over the past decade, according to the report.

Health workers tracking HIV trends in India say the rising figures show growth of infections in states that have traditionally considered areas of low HIV prevalence.

In Jharkhand, the number of new HIV infections each year has nearly doubled over the past four years — from about 4,600 new infections in 2007 to about 9,000 new infections in 2011.

These estimates generate evidence for where the AIDS control programme would need to “focus ahead”, Sayan Chatterjee, the director general of the NACO, said in a message released with the report.

NACO said India’s overall HIV prevalence has declined steadily from 0.41 per cent to 0.35 per cent in 2006, and 0.27 per cent in 2011. Health officials attribute this decline to a slew of prevention and control activities — from educational campaigns for students, truck drivers and commercial sex workers to the distribution of free condoms and improved facilities to treat sexually transmitted diseases.

But officials say the increase in new infections in what were long viewed as low-prevalence states highlights the need for “stronger interventions” aimed at curbing the spread of HIV.

While the exact reasons for this increase remain unclear, NACO said movement of migrant workers from urban centres to rural areas might explain the increase in infection in some regions.

The detection of HIV infections among pregnant women with migrant spouses points to the possible role of “migration in fuelling the HIV epidemic in these states”, NACO said in its report.

The surveillance report also estimates that free anti-retroviral therapy offered by the government to HIV infected persons in India since 2004 has so far helped avert the deaths of over 150,000 people. The free therapy programme is expected to avert about 60,000 deaths each year over the next five years.

NACO today also announced plans to scale-up several interventions to curb the spread of HIV. One such initiative will aim at educating migrant workers about the risks of HIV and AIDS at various transit points between their sites of work and native places.