New Delhi: India completed 10 years of the free anti-retroviral treatment (ART) programme for Human Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) patients, now covering 768,000 people. While the first HIV case in India was detected in 1986, about 2.1 million Indians are now living with the AIDS virus.

The first effective ART regimen was announced in 1996 and on 1 April 2004, the government began a free ART programme at eight centres in six high-prevalence states. The network has now grown to a network of 1,251 ART centres across India.

“This is a huge milestone for us, but we have moved a step ahead to cover prevention from parent to child. It is now a policy decision that each pregnant woman needs to be tested for HIV and that first point of contact for every HIV patient has to be an ART centre," A.S. Rathore, deputy director general, department of AIDS control, said at the Treatment@10 event in New Delhi organized by National Coalition of People Living with HIV in India.

The huge number of unaccounted HIV patients seeking private healthcare is another challenge that needs to be combated, Rathore said.

“Ten years of ART comes with exciting numbers, but we need to double these numbers as according to WHO (World Health Organization), 1.7 million people in India need to be on treatment," said Pradeep Kakkattil, deputy director, regional support team, United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) Asia and Pacific.

Kakkattil added that earlier delays cannot be repeated. “We knew ART is effective in 1996, but we started providing free ART in 2004. Continuous supply of drugs for all lines of treatment needs to be ensured and drug stock outs due to operational issues, delayed tenders need to be prevented," he said.

Activists and stakeholders pointed out that a looming challenge with regards today is co-infection like accompanying HIV, Hepatitis C and drug-resistant tuberculosis.

“Drug stockouts and diagnosis for diseases that accompany HIV also need to be paid attention to," said Leena Menghaney, a lawyer and activist with international medical humanitarian aid organization Médecins Sans Frontières, or Doctors Without Borders. Facility level stockouts and the increasing number of patients need to be tracked to prevent drug stockouts, she said.

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