Three years ago, Seema’s life collapsed around her. She was 24, pregnant, and her doctor had just discovered that she was HIV positive. Her husband also tested positive. The Pune couple’s life changed overnight: unaffordable medication, social ostracism, and the consequent depression wreaked havoc on them.
Then, a voluntary organization referred her to Taal, a Pune-based year-old initiative that is partly low-cost pharmacy, partly HIV/AIDS-patient-support group. “My meetings at Taal taught me that testing positive is not the end of the world,” said Seema, whose husband died in December.
Taal is the result of a partnership between HIV and Human Development Resource Network (HDRN), a non-governmental organization that works in the area of HIV/AIDS and human trafficking, and Emcure, a city-based pharmaceutical company. It began as a pharmacy run by HIV-positive people for fellow sufferers. Taal has now grown into a support group that has generated a profitable business model. Emcure provides the anti-retroviral (ARV) medication to Taal at subsidized rates. Drugs for a month’s treatment cost between Rs1,200 and Rs5,000 at pharmacies. Emcure provides them to Taal for around Rs360, as part of its corporate social responsibility (CSR).
“It has been a huge learning experience for us at Emcure to see patients progress from severe physical and emotional problems arising out of the stigma of testing positive, to becoming self-confident people who can take on the challenges of everyday living,” says A.K. Khanna, executive director of Emcure.
Taal sells the medicines to customers at a marginal markup, for between Rs500 and Rs1,500 for ARV drugs needed for a month; the profits go towards providing other services, such as counselling, and investing in setting up of pharmacies. Last year, Taal bought ARVs for Rs25 lakh from Emcure and made a profit of Rs3-4 lakh selling it.
Today, Taal centres function in Nagpur and Kalyan, both in Maharashtra, and in Namakkal, a major poultry hub in Tamil Nadu. More centres will open this year in Kolkata, Rajkot in Gujarat, Delhi, Nanded in Maharashtra, and several other cities and towns. And it has been successful enough for HIV-positive people in other parts of the world to seek something similar in their own countries, according to Afsana Cherian, CSR and partnership specialist, HDRN.
According to a 2006 fact-sheet put out by UNAIDS, the United Nations programme on HIV/AIDS, India had 57 lakh people living with HIV in 2005. The agency also says that in 2005, “well below 10% of the people needing ARV treatment in India were receiving it.” The country does have a public ARV disbursement system underwritten by the government, but the process is slow, and waiting lists long. Those patients who can afford it buy the medication from private pharmacies. Those who cannot, and this comprises the majority, simply give up.
Apart from medicines and counselling, Taal helps people living with HIV find jobs—not an easy thing to do in a country where few organizations are willing to hire people living with the infection.
Seema works with a local hospital where she talks to expectant mothers from poorer sections of the population about HIV, and how they can prevent being infected. She has two children to raise and there is the uncertainty associated with the infection, but she says she values every day she spends with her children.