India to verify UN's HIV/AIDS figures

India has announced that it will verify United Nations' estimates that it has overtaken South Africa as the country with the highest number of people living with HIV/AIDS in the world.

|PIC1|UNAIDS, the U.N.'s AIDS prevention agency, said in May that there were about 5.7 million Indians infected at the end of 2005 against South Africa's 5.5 million cases.

The Indian government has disputed the figure, saying there were 5.2 million cases by the end of last year - stirring a debate in local media as to whether authorities have been suppressing facts about the severity of the AIDS epidemic in the country.

According to Sujatha Rao, director general of the National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO), the discrepancy between the two estimates was due to different methodologies.

"UNAIDS has taken a different methodology, but it has to be validated because the assumptions that UNAIDS took were based on global data and not Indian data so therefore they have come up with a higher estimate," Rao said.

The U.N. had also taken into account all age groups, whereas Indian estimates were based on those between the ages of 15 and 49 years old, she added.

Rao said the government had now set up an independent expert committee to try to apply and validate UNAIDS' methodology and the results would be known at the end of 2006. She said this would show the reality of the HIV/AIDS situation in India.

|TOP|Rao said it was not fair to say India had the world's largest HIV-infected population as countries such as China, which says it has 650,000 infections, did not have comprehensive surveillance systems in place compared with India.

"So when UNAIDS comes up and makes a statement that India has the highest number of infections, they are not comparing apples with apples - they are comparing apples with oranges," she said.

India plans to spend about $ 2. 5 billion during the next 5 years to fight the HIV/AIDS pandemic, out of which Rs. 700 crore ($ 152 million) will be spent in fiscal 2006/2007 on stemming rising infections - most of which will be spent on anti-retroviral treatment, counselling, distribution of condoms and awareness campaigns.

According to Rao, teams of the World Bank and another international funding agency are currently in India to make appraisal of phase three of the National AIDS Control Programme (NACP-III) and decid about their contribution to the country's fight against AIDS.

|AD|"The teams, making technical examinations, are more or less satisfied with the government's proposed programme to fight the dreaded disease. Many international organizations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are going to contribute to the country's fight against AIDS," Rao said. "Once they approve the programme and decide on their contribution to NACP-III, the government would decide abou bridging the gap in the resources. The project would be implemented after it is cleared by the Finance Ministry."

The NACP-III would be implemented during the 11th 5-year Plan and is likely to start from November this year to 2012, she said.

NACP-III would adopt a multi-pronged strategy and cover all high-risk groups like sex workers, truck drivers, drug users and homosexuals, she said, adding, "Since NACP-III would take the HIV/AIDS control programme to the district level, the government is planning to involve the community leaders from grassroots in a big way in implementing it."

Sixty percent of HIV/AIDS cases have been reportedin rural areas in India and some of the factors leading to the high vulnerability level are poverty, natural calamities, ignorance, gender disparities and limited access to healthcare facilities, Rao said.

The U.N. estimates about 400,000 deaths related to HIV/AIDS occurred in India last year - a figure Rao said was possible, although studies by the government were still underway.

A daily newspaper recently reported that the HIV/AIDS epidemic may kill 11 million people in India over the next 20 years.

While Indian officials have not accepted the UNAIDS figure for India and continue to cite the Health Ministry's number of 5.2 million people living with HIV/AIDS, anti-AIDS groups say the real figure is higher as the stigma attached to the disease prevents some people from reporting their status. Besides, deaths are not recorded as HIV-related in medical records.







Surojit Chatterjee
Christian Today India Correspondent

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