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INDIA: Kashmir Gets a Grip on AIDS

Sana Altaf

SRINAGAR, Sep 13 2011 (IPS) - When the sole Community Care Centre in Jammu and Kashmir providing medical and psychosocial services to people living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA) closed down for lack of patients it was a sure sign that the north Indian state had beaten back dire forecasts.

“There were few people coming in and fewer new cases,” Dr. M. A. Wani, former director of the Jammu and Kashmir AIDS Prevention and Control Society (JKAPCS), told IPS, explaining the closure six months ago.

The latest sentinel survey conducted by the JKAPCS in 2010 shows an HIV prevalence of 0.03 percent – down from the 1.2 percent in the survey conducted in 2009.

According to official statistics, of the 4,846 test samples taken in the year 2008 only three persons were found to be HIV positive, and of the 4,840 samples tested in 2009 not one was found positive.

Such figures contrast sharply with grim projections made by the National Aids Control Organisation (NACO) in 2002-2003 that some 40,000 people would be infected with HIV within two years in Jammu and Kashmir and that 20,000 people would die of AIDS by 2015.

Since 1997, only 193 new patients have tested positive for HIV, most of them urban males in the 15 – 45 age group. There are now 2,787 PLWHA, including 800 women and 176 children, in this state with a population of 12.5 million people.

NACO figures released in June say there are 683 people on anti-retroviral therapy (ART) in Jammu and Kashmir where the total number of people recorded as ever getting full-blown AIDS stands at 1,123 – out of which 203 have died.

The low and declining rates have not made life easier for PLHWA, because of the strong social stigma attached to the disease and difficulties in accessing anti-retroviral drugs.

Mudasir Ahmed, 27, HIV positive, secretly travels 30 km from an outlying town to the Sher-e-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences (SKIMS), Srinagar’s premier medical facility, to collect his stock of medicines.

“I have not told my family about my disease because it will hurt them a lot. They will hate me forever,” said Mudasir, while waiting for his turn to collect his medicines.

“I know that I have to have an adequate stock of medicines because they keep me alive. It gets really difficult at times to make excuses at home,” says Mudasir, who tested positive two years ago and is now studying to be a commerce graduate.

Experts say that the majority of HIV sufferers in the state are youth and troops deployed in strength in the state to fight armed separatist insurgency.

“Besides troops, youth are the major victims of HIV in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. They fall in the age group of 15 – 45 years,” says Dr. Latief Ahmad, deputy director at the JKAPCS.

Latief said that the major route for transmission of the virus in the state is sexual. “Cases involving spread of HIV through blood transfusion have hardly come to our notice,” Latief told IPS.

He added that the valley faces threat of HIV mainly from troops, truck drivers, migrant labourers and people who travel regularly.

Wani told IPS that the slow economic development of the state may be one reason for low HIV prevalence. “It has been noted that well-developed cities and towns fall prey more easily to HIV. Since Kashmir is largely underdeveloped, we are on the safer side,” Wani says.

Other factors that may have contributed to the low HIV prevalence is the intensive awareness campaigns and counselling mounted by the JKAPCS.

“We have carried out extensive campaigning involving people from the ground level to school teachers and political leaders,” said Wani. “Even religious leaders were roped in.”

Besides providing counselling to thousands of schoolteachers, the JKAPCS has trained 840 imams (mosque leaders) and about 500 granthis or Sikh temple preachers.

The state has two anti-retroviral therapy (ART) centres, one each in the Jammu and Kashmir regions, but there are few patients.

“We have been able to get an ART centre in SKIMS with great difficulty because of the small number of patients,” Wani said.

Wani said that one reason for the social discrimination against PLHWA in Jammu and Kashmir is because “HIV/AIDS is still a new disease in the valley and people know very little about it.”

“Owing to the social stigma people are reluctant to discuss topics around HIV/AIDS or avail of testing and treatment service,” said Wani.

“It is very unfortunate that HIV victims are strongly discriminated against in our society despite the spread of education and mass awareness about HIV,” said Qurat-ul-ain, a social activist.

Qurat said HIV patients are looked down upon in Kashmiri society with infected females suffering more than males. “It will take generations for Kashmiri people to accept PLWHA.”

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