AIDS set to strike with a vengeance

some startling revelations were made in the recently concluded 14th international aids conference at Barcelona, Spain. The most alarming among them being that India and China are likely to be the next epicentres of aids.

At present India has an estimated 3.97 million people suffering from the disease, while .85 million people are affected by it in China. The projected figures for India are even more alarming. According to an estimate by People's Health Organisation (pho), a Mumbai-based non-governmental organisation (ngo), around 25 million people (one in 40) are likely to be struck by the virus in the country by 2005.

Lack of awareness seems to be the main cause for the increasing incidence of the disease in both nations. A presentation by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, a us-based research organisation, at the aids conference showed that in a survey conducted among 7,000 Chinese between the age of 15 and 49, 17 per cent of them had never heard of aids and 75 per cent were ignorant of the preventive measures. "In Asia with some exceptions, aids has not made it yet to the top of the political agenda,' Peter Piot, executive director of unaids, a joint un programme on hiv/aids, is reported to have said.

Though the main agenda of the National aids Control Organisation (naco), established under the Union ministry of health and family welfare in India in 1986, is creating awareness about the disease, recent studies tell a different story. A survey conducted by the Union government from 2000 to 2001 showed that more than 20 per cent of the population had never heard of aids.

Experts say that one of the main reasons for the failure of the programme is the lack of interpersonal communication between the people and the authorities. "The programme is not well thought out. Even those who know about the disease are ignorant of the preventive measures,' laments Jaishree Ramakrishnan, head of the department of health education, National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences, Bangalore. "We find that even health personnel working in this field are not sensitive to the needs of the patients,' states Irfan Khan, co-ordinator, Naz Foundation (India) Trust, an ngo, providing care to aids patients.

Though naco has spent around us $99.6 million in the first phase of the programme, it has completely ignored the aspect of access to antiretroviral (arv) drugs. Despite the fact that India is one of the major producers of arv drugs, the prices are too high for most of the patients. "The high costs of the drugs makes them inaccessible to the general public,' feels Anand Kurup, senior programme officer at India hiv/aids Alliance, a Delhi-based ngo.

India can learn a thing or two from government programmes of countries like Brazil, which provide drugs free of cost for the treatment of aids. According to a naco consultant the economic feasibility of providing free drugs is being explored. But officials of pharmaceutical companies like Ranbaxy Laboratories Limited say that the government has so far not approached them in this regard. When contacted naco officials did not respond.