Thousands of people in India's northeast, where a large number of drug users have sparked fears of a worsening AIDS epidemic, pledged Monday to step up the fight against HIV by spreading awareness about the dreaded virus.
School children, health workers, people living with HIV/AIDS and rehabilitated drug addicts marched through the streets in the seven northeastern states - Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura - to mark World AIDS Day and educate the public about prevention and treatment for the HIV-positive.
"The slogan this year is 'Lead-Empower-Deliver', highlighting the political leadership needed to fulfil commitments that have been made in the response to AIDS, particularly the promise of universal access to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support by 2010, and celebrating the leadership that has been witnessed at all levels of society," Assam health minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said.
"We in Assam are committed to carrying out the theme of the World AIDS Day in letter and spirit," Sarma told IANS.
Some 2.5 million Indians are HIV positive. "There is a need to make available anti-retroviral drugs more easily. We need anti-retroviral treatment (ART) centres in Assam for people living with HIV/AIDS," said Jahnabi Goswami, president of the Assam Network of Positive People.
Goswami is one of the few women in India fighting to raise awareness of the disease and one of an even smaller number to have publicly declared that she is HIV-positive way back in 2001.
"We shall try and set up ART centres and take a pledge to fight the virus effectively and help those living with HIV/AIDS lead a dignified life without any discrimination," the minister said.
While the seven northeastern states have a total of about 35,000 HIV-positive patients, authorities fear the disease may spread because of the region's acute drug problem.
India's northeast borders the heroin-producing "Golden Triangle" of Laos, Myanmar and Thailand and has high rates of intravenous drug use - a key cause of HIV infection here.
The seven states account for less than three percent of India's one billion-plus population but are home to more than 30 percent of the country's total intravenous drug users, according to various estimates.
"Sharing of needles by drug users in the northeast rather than promiscuous sex has led to a quantum increase in the number of AIDS cases," said S.I. Ahmed, chairman of the Assam AIDS Prevention Society.
"But today, the drug users are passing the infection to the general population in the region through their sex partners. HIV transmission rates from mother to child are also assuming frightening proportions."
Health workers also emphasised the need to educate sex workers following surveys that suggest most prostitutes in the region were engaging in unprotected sex.
Despite the efforts of non-governmental organisations and pressure groups, government agencies in the region have so far not managed to curb drug addiction or prostitution.