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  • AIDS Pandemic Set To Explode For India's Billion

    NEW DELHI, Dec 1 (OneWorld) - On the occasion of World AIDS day, a United Nations report warns of a serious AIDS epidemic in parts of India, where around four million people were infected nationally by the end of 2002, partly due to poor awareness of the virus, which is no longer restricted to high-risk groups.

    Health experts stress they are concerned about the spread of the virus in several Indian states, including Maharashtra in the west and Tamil Nadu in the south.

    "The figures are alarming," remarks B P Thiagarajan, joint director, monitoring and evaluation of the Population Foundation of India, a New Delhi based nongovernmental body that has just published a study on the spread of AIDS/HIV in India, in collaboration with the Washington based Population Reference Bureau.

    According to government figures, the number of people with HIV/AIDS in India increased by 610,000 in 2002. India accounted for about 12 percent of the 5-million increase in HIV/AIDS cases in the world last year.

    "The HIV/AIDS picture in South Asia remains dominated by the epidemic in India, where between 3.82 and 4.58 million people were infected nationally by the end of 2002," says the United Nations in its AIDS epidemic update for 2003.

    Groups such as the Population Foundation and the government's National AIDS Control Organization (NACO) stress that the only way to combat the virus is by informing people about ways of preventing its spread.

    "In some parts of India, people are aware of AIDS, but often the information is incorrect," says Thiagarajan. "Elsewhere, there is no knowledge at all about HIV or AIDS," he says.

    According to the experts, HIV/AIDS is not just confined to high-risk groups - such as sex workers or drug users - but is now spreading to the general population in India. NACO stresses that HIV/AIDS is gradually spreading into rural areas and the wider population.

    Yet, according to the study, three out of four rural women in three of the largest states - Bihar in the east, Gujarat in the west and Uttar Pradesh in the north - have not even heard of HIV/AIDS.

    "Only 100 percent awareness of HIV/AIDS and how it spreads can be an effective safeguard against the menace," says A R Nanda, executive director of Population Foundation of India. "Much has been done but much more needs to be done," he emphasizes.

    According to the United Nations, which released a report last week, there is an AIDS prevalence of over 50 percent among sex workers in some cities in Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu and of 60 to 75 percent among drug users in Manipur in northeast India.

    "Worryingly, not enough is known about HIV spread in the vast populous interior of Uttar Pradesh and other northern Indian states, where current HIV surveillance is providing an incomplete picture of the epidemic," the UN report says.

    The UN states that while India dominates South Asia in the spread of HIV/AIDS and the number of cases, epidemics could break out in neighboring Bangladesh and Nepal because of what it describes as risky behavior among sections of the population.

    "In ...Bangladesh and Nepal, national HIV prevalence has remained under one percent, but risky behavior in parts of the population is so extensive that it could be just a matter of time before wider epidemics erupt," it predicts.

    In the Nepalese capital, Kathmandu, there is an HIV prevalence of up to 68 percent among sex workers and 17 percent among injecting drug users.

    "Young people are at the hub of Nepal's AIDS challenge. While studies suggest that their HIV/AIDS knowledge is passable, they remain prone to HIV exposure," it says.

    Though Bangladesh has a low prevalence, the UN says it poses "as big a challenge" because of high rates of unsafe injecting drug use, a thriving sex trade and unsafe blood-transfusion practices.

    "In addition, knowledge of AIDS is slight: only about 65 percent of young people, and fewer than 20 percent of married women and 33 percent of married men have heard of AIDS," it says. "The upshot is a very high potential for rapid HIV transmission."

    The UN report says that the few HIV surveillance studies conducted in Pakistan point to a low HIV prevalence. "However, a growing number of the estimated 3 million heroin users in Pakistan have begun injecting since the late 1990s," it says.

    A recent study among drug users in Quetta found that one out of two people injecting drugs used unclean equipment while the same number had sex with a sex worker. But only four percent of the people surveyed had used a condom and only 16 percent had heard of AIDS.

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