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Indian Prime Minister: HIV Progress Good Start; Efforts Must Continue

by Kilian Melloy
Wednesday Jul 6, 2011
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India’s prime minister says that the progress the populous nation, which ranks third in new HIV cases, has made in the fight against AIDS is a good start, but efforts in the struggle to combat the spread of the virus must be ongoing, a July 4 AFP article reported.

"Our HIV/AIDS program can justifiably claim a measure of success," said Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on July 4. The AFP reported that new cases of HIV have fallen by 50% in the last ten years, but India still trails only South Africa and Nigeria in terms of infection rates. The current annual rate of infection in India is estimated to be around 120,000.

When India decriminalized homosexuality in 2009, activists predicted that HIV rates would fall as a result because more men would seek testing and, if infected, treatment. Medical research has proven that untreated individuals pose a greater risk of transmitting the virus than those who are on an effective drug regimen to keep their viral loads in check.

Prior to the decriminalization of homosexuality, gay men were also targeted for blackmail, because the legal repercussions could be severe. The advent of decriminalization has meant greater opportunity for both genders to seek happiness, with women in India now leaving sham marriages to gay husbands.

But efforts at controlling the spread of the virus cannot be allowed to trail off, Singh cautioned, saying that "there should be no room for complacency," the AFP article noted.

"With the introduction of antiretroviral treatment, HIV has become a chronic but manageable health condition," Singh told the media.

The prime minister’s speech on HIV drew demonstrators, the article said. Earlier this year, activists in India protested efforts from the European Union to end the production of cheap generic drugs for people living with HIV in poor countries.

"More than 80 percent of the AIDS drugs our medical practitioners use to treat 175,000 people in developing countries are affordable generics from India," said Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Frontiers) spokesperson Paul Cawthorne told the media last March.

Cawthorne said that HIV patients were not the only ones to benefit from the lower cost of India-made generics. "Beyond AIDS, we rely on producers in India for drugs to treat other illnesses, such as tuberculosis and malaria," Cawthorne explained. "We can not afford to let our patients’ lifeline be cut."

The EU is seeking more protections on intellectual property, including "data exclusivity" provisions that would extend to drugs that are no longer protected from generic brands by patent limitations.

But medical experts worry that placing profits ahead of accessibility will spell disaster, both for people living with HIV and for those who may become infected as a result of any loss in availability of suitable drugs.

"It would be a colossal mistake to introduce data exclusivity in India, when millions of people across the globe depend on the country as the ’pharmacy of the developing world,’ " UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health Anand Grover said.

Moreover, free or cheap HIV medications are needed just as much within India as in nations that benefit from India’s production of generics.

"So-called ’first-line’ antiretroviral therapy (ART) -- a cocktail of drugs to slow the effects of the virus on the body’s immune system -- has been widely available and free of charge in India’s public health system since 2004," the article recounted.

Health minister Ghulam Nabi Azad also spoke at the press conference, inciting controversy with his claims that homosexuality is a "disease" that has spread to India from the Western world.

"Unfortunately this disease has come to our country too," Azad said, "where a man has sex with another man, which is completely unnatural and should not happen, but does," the Associated Press reported on July 4.

Activists immediately decried Azad’s comments.

"These comments help no cause," said Anjali Gopalan, the head of the NAZ Foundation, which promotes GLBT equality causes and was a principal force in the decriminalization of homosexuality in India. "It’s definitely not going to help in our fight against HIV,"

Singh struck a less controversial stance, saying that those living with the virus should not be denied equal access to social institutions. Some HIV positive children have been refused an education in India’s schools, the article noted.

"We must see that there is no social [ostracism]," Singh declared.

Singh said that the government had reached out to sex workers to educate them about HIV. Azad said that similar efforts needed to be initiated to reach out to men who have sex with men (MSMs).

MSMs often identify as heterosexual, even though they may sometimes seek out sexual encounters with others of the same gender.

"We can track female sex workers but it is almost impossible to identify men having sex with men," Azad told the media. "We need to take the message to them to further stabilize the epidemic."

According to UNAIDS, the major factors in the spread of HIV in India are unsafe sexual congress between those in the sex trade and their clients and other sexual partners, and the sharing of needles, the AFP article said.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor, writing about film, theater, food and drink, and travel, as well as contributing a column. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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