New Delhi: Health officials cut India’s HIV/AIDS estimate by half on Friday, with the new count showing between two million and 3.1 million cases, but pledged to keep funding, prevention and treatment programmes intact.
“In terms of human lives affected, the numbers are still large and worrying,” said Union health minister Anbumani Ramadoss. “We cannot let down our vigil.”
The government revised the number based on blood tests of pregnant women in more areas believed to represent the general population, including under-represented North India. Testing sites increased from 703 to 1,100 and the government also relied on data from National Family Health Survey, a countrywide household-based study. Previously, the government counted 5.2 million cases of the disease, while UN estimates placed it at 5.7 million, which led India to top the global list ranked by number of cases alone.
The National AIDS Control Organization, the arm of the health ministry tasked with coordinating the response to the epidemic, also officially launched on Friday its third national HIV/AIDS policy. The Rs11,585 crore plan aims to reach 80% of the estimated four million people considered at high risk of contracting the disease, including sex workers, men who have sex with men, injecting drug users, migrants and long-distance truckers, over the next five years.
With a scope that has been described as staggering by some, the plan also aims to test 42 million people, increase the safety of blood supply, place an additional 300,000 adults and 40,000 children on drug treatment, and see more than three billion condoms sold with a view towards halting or reversing the epidemic here by 2011. International donors, who have pledged billions to fight the epidemic, including the World Bank, UN, the US and the UK development agencies, as well as private foundations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, said they will stay the course despite the revised numbers.
On Thursday, the World Bank announced a $250 million (Rs1,000 crore) loan, the largest piece of outside funding. It said it decided not to scale back because the epidemic in India still has potential to spread.
“Those at high risk are at the heart of the epidemic and we are nowhere near full coverage of them,” said Kees Kostermans, the Bank’s lead public health specialist for South Asia. “They haven’t been cut in half. So the overall administrative cost of the programme to reach them remains the same.”
Ashok Alexander, executive director of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has committed $260 billion to HIV prevention efforts here over five years, warned against complacency in the fight against the epidemic.
Despite the lower numbers, he said rates of the disease remain “alarmingly high” in some places. High-risk groups in certain areas still show double-digit percentage rates and one in six districts show prevalence levels of more than 1%, which is commonly taken to indicate that the disease has spread out of high-risk groups and is now found in the general population, he said.
Ramadoss also highlighted new initiatives. With an aim at reducing risky private collections and providing improved access to safe blood, the government is developing a framework for a blood transfusion authority based on the system used by the US FDA.
The government is also working on a health education package aimed at high school students that will “focus on a healthy lifestyle” and preventing unsafe sexual behaviour, he said.