I have just returned from a visit to India to see what is being done in tackling HIV and AIDS. Back at the start of the epidemic in 1986 I was health minister in Britain. We carried out a very high profile public education campaign using television, radio, poster sites to get the message through. We sent leaflets to every home in the country. Remember at this time there was no treatment. If you contracted HIV it was so often a death sentence.
But of course we were a relatively small country. India has a massive population of well over a billion and a vast area to cover. It is enormous credit to those early public health activists and to their successors on what has been accomplished. The creation of the National AIDS Control Organisation in itself was a massive achievement. Unlike some countries I have visited over the last 18 months there has been close cooperation with civil society organisations like India HIV/AIDS Alliance and many others. India put prevention first and the figures tell the story.
There has not been the explosion we have seen in Sub Saharan Africa where in one country almost a quarter of the population are infected. There may be two million people in India with HIV but compared with the population, prevalence is remarkably low. If you take injecting drug users then India has followed the sensible policy of providing clean needles. This should eliminate the spread of the infection by dirty needles being shared.
Does this mean then that all the problems in India have been solved? Of course not. No country can claim that. We still have a major problem of discrimination and stigma when it comes to sexual minorities. Drug users are often treated with contempt as are transgender people who face particular prejudice. Sex workers continue to be exploited – although HIV transmission has fallen due to the vastly increased use of condoms. Men who have sex with men are still widely condemned.
And what difference does such discrimination make? It means that many men and women are unwilling to come forward for testing. They fear what the impact may be on their lives if it is known that they are positive. They fear the reaction in their families, in their communities and at work. And the effect is this: They are undiagnosed and continue to spread the virus. HIV and AIDS continue to increase. Deaths mount.
Of course this is not just a problem in India. It is a problem in every country in the world that I have visited. On this World AIDS Day we should vow to fight the discrimination and the stigma – and make a new effort to get people to test and get on treatment as it becomes more and more available. HIV is no longer a death sentence but the earlier a man or woman goes into treatment the longer life will be.
The author of this blog, Lord Norman Fowler, was a member of Margaret Thatcher’s Cabinet and served as chairman of the Conservative Party under John Major between 1992 and 1994. He was instrumental in drawing public attention to the dangers of AIDS in Britain. He is the author of A Political Suicide: The Conservatives’ Voyage into the Wilderness and is currently writing a book on the global AIDS epidemic. Hosted by Alliance India, Lord Fowler recently visited New Delhi and Surat, Gujarat, to learn more about how this country has risen to the challenge of HIV.