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Stigma kills before disease
- HIV-positive people pour hearts out at 'public hearing'

Imphal, Jan. 29: Horror stories of discrimination against HIV/AIDS patients in Manipur came out in the open at the state's first 'public hearing' for victims of the scourge,

One of the most shocking incidents was narrated by Rani Devi, among the many who poured their hearts out today before health department officials, social workers, legal experts and police officials.

The woman claimed some residents of her locality had tried to 'cremate' her HIV-positive son along with her husband, who died of AIDS, because they did not want anybody with the virus in the neighbourhood.

An HIV-positive young man complained that his family members never encouraged him to undergo treatment and prolong his life. Raju said not a single member of his family had ever accompanied him to hospital. 'They are actually afraid of letting anybody know that a member of the family is HIV-positive.'

Jibanmala, a widow, asked if positive people did not have the right to live. 'I can no longer bear the discrimination and social ostracism. Don't we have the right to live' Please tell me if it is so. It will help me muster the courage to end my life,' she said, tears flooding her eyes.

Some patients, especially those living far from the state capital, said they did not have access to proper treatment. 'At times I do not even have the bus fare to come to Imphal for a dose of ART (anti-retroviral drugs),' one of them said.

The three-member 'jury', chaired by retired district and sessions judge C. Upendra Singh, made four recommendations. These include a legislation to prevent discrimination, loans from nationalised banks at nominal rates of interest and either jobs or pension. The jury also urged the government to introduce a scheme for reimbursement of medical expenditure incurred by HIV-positive people.

The NGOs that are part of the initiative will formally submit these recommendations to the government.

The daylong public hearing on HIV/AIDS-related stigma, discrimination and human rights violation in Imphal was the first of its kind in a state that figures among the six states of the country where AIDS prevalence is the highest. The hearing was organised by the Northeast India Harm Reduction Network in partnership with the Manipur Network of Positive People, the Social Awareness Service Organisation and the Kripa Society, all based in Imphal.

Till September last year, AIDS had claimed 505 lives in Manipur and as many as 3,537 cases of full-blown AIDS officially registered.

Although over 20,000 people have tested HIV-positive in the state so far, only about 1,400 regularly come to the two ART centres in Imphal for treatment.

This, an official of the state health department explained, was due to social discrimination. 'The government has been implementing various programmes for those living with HIV/AIDS, but they continue to be socially ostracised. Worse still, their own families let them down.'

(Some names have been changed to protect identities)

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