The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Amritsar villages make AIDS test a must for marriage

Amritsar, April 12: Over 100 villages in Amritsar district along the Indo-Pak international border have made HIV tests compulsory before marriage.

The move, initiated by Tarn Taran SSP Narinder Bhargav and the Shri Guru Arjan Dev Mission Hospital, follows an alarming rise in drug addiction and HIV positive cases in the district.

A similar decision had earlier been taken by residents of Manuke, a big hamlet of 10,000 people about 55 km from Ludhiana, after 12 AIDS deaths were reported in the last five years.

“So far, the idea of asking for HIV certificates before getting married had only been a desirable ideal. What is laudable is that it has been pioneered in a rural area where awareness about the deadly disease is presumed to be lower than in urban areas,” Bhargav, who is coordinating an AIDS awareness campaign in over 400 villages with the mission hospital, said.

Amritsar has the highest listed number of AIDS patients: about 1,200 out of nearly 2,000 in the state. Unofficially, the figure runs into thousands.

Mission hospital president J.P. Singh said de-addiction camps had been started in a number of places and 93 HIV positive cases had already been detected. In Manochahal alone, over a dozen persons were found infected. He said of 60 drug addicts admitted to the hospital’s de-addiction centre, nine were HIV positive and had probably infected many others.

“The figure was alarming and pointed towards an epidemic. It prompted me to spread the word about the threat,” he said.

The hospital had organised an assembly of panchayats on World Health Day and narrated the dark side of the picture to village elders. After a little persuasion, the panchayats agreed to pass resolutions making HIV tests mandatory for marrying couples. About 105 villages adopted the resolution on April 8 and the rest are expected to follow suit.

Rakesh Bharti, a dermatologist involved with the project, said it was a pity the state was not providing financial help to control AIDS. Even a poor state like Himachal Pradesh was giving free medicine to infected pregnant mothers but Punjab continued to neglect the vital health care sector, he added.

In villages like Rajoke, Khalra and Kasel, screening prospective spouses is not a personal choice of some but a conscious decision by all. Avtar Singh, a farm hand at Kasel, said when he recently had fever, he carried a disposable syringe to the doctor.

Police and hospital authorities have organised seminars for barbers, tattoo makers and medical practitioners and issued stringent warnings to prostitutes. Prostitutes have been told about the precautions they should take. Some have now started carrying a card saying: “Mein AIDS ke bare jagruk haan (I am aware of AIDS).”

When asked what she thought about the whole issue, Lovepreet, a class X student, said: “Our family has decided that whenever they look for a match for me, we will insist on an HIV test.”

J.S. Sandhu, a sarpanch, said AIDS deaths had been occurring in almost all villages of Punjab, but residents continued to ignore them or remain silent. Six villages adjoining Amritsar have reported one or two AIDS deaths, but they are talked about in hushed tones.

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