WHO backs Indian claim on lower AIDS infections

Agence France Presse

New Delhi, May 27:

Health groups in India have rejected government figures showing a 95 per cent slide in annual growth of HIV infections, calling the drop “beyond comprehension”. The World Health Organisation said today it accepted the method used by India’s health ministry to compile the data showing only 28,000 new HIV infections in 2004, down from 520,000 the previous year. The figures took the total number of people who are officially HIV-positive in India to 5.13 million, the second highest number of people living with HIV/AIDS after South Africa with 5.3 million. The health ministry, which gave India’s infection rate as 0.91 per cent or less than one per cent of its population, said the figures were compiled according to WHO norms. “We accept the methodology,” a WHO spokeswoman said. But NGOs working with HIV-affected people say they believe the figures were flawed. “Our gut feeling is there’s something wrong because agencies working on the ground are regularly seeing a greater number of people accessing services,” said Irfan Khan, Naz India’s care programme coordinator. “Such a fall within in a year is completely beyond comprehension.”

“If these figures are true, this is the biggest miracle of this century,” said K Narayan, trustee of the AIDS Control and Community Education Programme Trust in Chennai. “This drastic decrease is a methodological flaw,” he said. Last month Richard Feachem, head of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, said India had outstripped South Africa in the number of HIV cases and called on the country to “wake up” to the problem. Feachem said he and other experts believed India had overtaken South Africa. His comments caused a furore in India with the government dismissing his statement. AIDS campaigners say there is reluctance in official circles to have India singled out as having the world’s biggest number of HIV cases. They say there is massive under-reporting of HIV infections due to social stigma facing sufferers, lack of available treatment and ignorance about the disease.

Data collection is complicated by the fact there are only 700 voluntary testing centres across India. The National AIDS Control Organisation wants to raise that figure to 24,000 over the next five years. KV Singh, a trustee of DART which works with HIV-affected people, said, “It’s quite impossible to say what the actual figure is but the number of infections are rising in an exponential manner. AIDS is everywhere which was not the case even five years ago.”

Even with the reported government fall in the growth rate of infections, some pockets of the country showed a worrying incidence of infection. AIDS campaigners highlighted Andhra Pradesh where 2.25 per cent of its population was reported infected. In Maharashtra, 1.12 per cent of the population were HIV positive, with 44.7 per cent of female prostitutes in Mumbai alone reporting at clinics testing positive.