M A I N   N E W S

AIDS & Punjab — II
Quacks thrive, Satnams suffer
Naveen S Garewal
Tribune News Service

Anandpur Sahib (Ropar), November 21
For eight long years, Satnam Singh was on anti-retroviral treatment hoping that this would check a certain count in his blood from falling further. He faced the worst kind of battering in his personal relationships and tried hard to deal with the stigma of being an HIV positive person. His “disease” was well known in the area as he was declared the first such case.

A God-fearing Satnam tried to take the HIV infection in his stride. However hard he tried to overcome the trauma, he often wondered how he could have contracted the deadly virus when he had done “nothing wrong”.

“Believe me, I have been a faithful husband and a devoted father. How can I convince you of my innocence?”, he kept asking his wife, who, in turn, kept accusing him of infidelity. Other relatives ostracised him for committing a horrible “sin”.

With the monthly expenditure on medication crossing over Rs 4000 per month and with no one to till his two acres of land, debt started rising. He had no choice but to sell his only truck. Frail and in failing health, Satnam almost became a recluse.

Having lost hope, he lived each day marking time till a miracle happened in April this year. A local NGO -Ambuja Cement Foundation - contacted him because of his HIV status. Satnam narrated his story about going to a Nawanshahar-based private doctor, at whose lab he was declared HIV positive.

Suspecting something amiss, the NGO persuaded him to accompany them to the Voluntary Testing and Counselling Centre, Ropar. There, to his pleasant surprise, he tested negative for HIV. Repeated tests confirmed the result.

The news came too late to cheer him. Prolonged and unwarranted drug use had damaged his health. His liver and kidneys have been affected and his legs can no longer take his weight, forcing him to use a crutch. Despite all the sufferings, Satnam draws comfort from the fact that his “innocence” has been proved. His wife Satwinder Kaur is back with him. And so are his three daughters and a son. The relatives, who used to shun him, have started visiting him again.

Not everyone is as lucky as Satnam. Hundreds of patients are being treated at the hands of quacks and registered medical practitioners (RMPs), even though some of them are HIV negative. Those who belong to the high-risk group are the ones who are especially exploited by the RMPs. There are many HIV cases that are mistaken for the ‘opportunistic’ infections like tuberculosis that set in after the immune system breaks down with HIV.

Punjab officially acknowledges 120 deaths due to AIDS since 1992. WHO estimates that between 2.7 lakh and 6.8 lakh people died of AIDS across India in 2005, some of whom would have been from Punjab. The state has been very lax in dealing with the threat of HIV, even when its population is highly vulnerable owing to the large presence of migrant and floating population.

Besides, a large number of people from the state venture out to other parts of the country and world in search of greener pastures. They have the potential of coming back with HIV. Punjab also contributes in large measure to the nation’s defence pool, which has seen an alarming rise in HIV cases among its lower ranks, says social worker Manpreet Singh.

Yet, Punjab had HIV-testing centres only at Amritsar, Ludhiana and Patiala during the last 20 years. It is only recently that similar facilities have been provided at most of the civil hospitals. According to Mr. K.B.S Sidhu, Secretary, Health, Punjab, prevalence of HIV has been very alarming among intravenous drug users (IDUs) sharing needles for injecting drugs.

“Availability of drugs is on the rise because outdated rules authorise only drug inspectors to raid chemists and seize drugs being sold illegally. The CMOs and SMOs have no power to conduct such raids. At present, there are only three or four drug inspectors in the entire state”, Mr Sidhu said.

To be continued



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