Sunday, February 29, 2004

Examining the pandemic
Ambika Sharma

Understanding AIDS: Myths, Efforts and Achievements
by Shalina Mehta and Suninder K. Sodhi. APH Publishing, New Delhi. Rs 795. Pages 372.

Understanding AIDS: Myths, Efforts and AchievementsWITH the rapid increase in the number of HIV/AIDS cases in India (5-time increase in two years), the country is on the brink of a crisis situation. Considered to be in a major catastrophic second phase, the reported projections for this disease are 3.86 million in India. Authored by Shalina Mehta, Professor of social anthropology at Panjab University, and Suninder K. Sodhi, a former NGO adviser of the Punjab State AIDS Control Society, Chandigarh, the book contains comprehensive details of this less-talked-about disease. While efforts have been made to peep into the history of the disease, details about its present status vis-`E0-vis Indian society have made it a myth-dispelling publication.

The authors have covered various aspects of AIDS, including the myths, medical helplessness, lack of coordination between the government agencies and voluntary organisations as well as the lack of financial resources for a mass-awareness campaign.

With India receiving a mere 10 per cent of the global resources for tackling AIDS, the biggest challenge for doctors in India is to develop a cheap drug to contain strains C and E which afflict the Indian population. The drugs on trial in the USA and the UK may not prove effective in India, which makes their task even more difficult.

Tracing the history of this disease to the Institute of Pasteur-Paris in 1983, where the HIV was first discovered, its global manifestations in the form of being a leading cause of death in the sub-Saharan region have been portrayed. The book has emanated in the form of papers presented at an AIDS workshop in Amsterdam in 2001, which was hosted by the Indo-Dutch Programme on Alternatives in Development. It guides the HIV/AIDS patients about their rights in society with emphasis on women.

While emphasising the role of religious and opinion leaders in mass awakening, the authors have highlighted the need for the doctors, paramedics, counsellors and others to keep the identity of the patient confidential. Cultural inhibitions, coupled with low levels of income and literacy hamper all strategies devised against HIV/AIDS.

While discrimination against women inflicted with HIV/AIDS has been worst, 46.5 per cent of the women in the age group of 15-29 are at a greater risk. The denial of care to women is the crude reality today. At even greater risk are sex workers, who driven by compulsions cannot say not to unsafe sex.

The book criticises the National AIDS Control Programme (NACO) for being ineffective. It was launched in 1987 with a WHO soft loan of $ 84 million. While calling for redefining the role of NACO, it lays stress on evolving a concerted effort by all agencies, including the Indian Council of Medical Science and Research and the Indian Council of Social Sciences Research, for vaccination development and strengthening research.

Developing support systems for protecting HIV/AIDS-infected children and AIDS orphans from discrimination in schools and society is the need of the hour. Using figures from various studies conducted worldwide, the writer has emphatically portrayed the gravity of the HIV/AIDS scenario. Abbreviations for medical terms have been expanded to make it easier for a layman to decipher these.

The attempt to cover a plethora of issues presented in various workshops has posed a number of macro-level problems. While not much has been recommended to solve these, all this has diverted attention from the prime issues. Besides, it has made the publication bulky and led to repetition of facts and suggestions. Compilation of recommendations in the form of original workshop suggestions has left the book devoid of the much-needed original conclusions for dealing with AIDS. The publication is still a work of good research, which is enough to dispel prevalent fears and myths about AIDS.