While western media are still writing about the African AIDS tragedy, an new and more powerful crisis is on the rise in India. The virus already holds the Indian nation in a tight grip. From big cities to small villages in the country side. And even more, the expectation are, that India will be hit much harder by AIDS in the next few years, than most of the African countries. 2003 had seen 520,000 new infections in India, the Health Ministry said there were just 28,000 in 2004. According to the official count, India has 5.13 million HIV/AIDS sufferers, while the U.N.’s estimate is up to 8.5 million. The Naz Foundation, a New Delhi-based AIDS charity, says the real figure may be closer to 15 million.The predictions by the U.S.’s Central Intelligence Agency is that the number of Indians infected with HIV and AIDS would top 20 million to 25 million by 2010. AIDS in India is spread mainly by truck-drivers, who get infected on the road-side by prostitutes and other sexual relations, then give on the virus to their families. The sex-traffic of Nepalese girls across the border to the big brothels in Mumbai, Delhi or Kolkata, supports the spread of HIV. AIDS experts regard India’s social constraints as a key reason the country hasn’t yet seen infections reach the rates witnessed in Africa. But prudishness is also a liability. Two years ago, for example, India’s former Health Minister pulled condom ads from state TV for indecency. While AIDS campaigners receive public money (albeit tiny sums), they have also been attacked by mobs and arrested by police. Half of India’s parents marry off their daughters before they are 18, but almost none will tell them the facts of life. But there are successful examples, that show the situation isn’t completely hopeless. There are some people in the country, who fight the ignorance. Putul Singh, Union coordinator of the DMSC, Kolkata. Putul Singh is now a sex worker by night and activist by day. She calls AIDS her „friend,“ because, she says, „before the project no one cared if we were healthy or not. After stemming the flow of AIDS among our sisters, we want to spread the message to ordinary people too.“ In recent years, public health officials, social workers, and politicians swarmed Kolkata‘s red-light areas, advocating safe sex, offering medical services, and distributing condoms. These campaigns resulted in tremendously successful initiatives like the Sonagachi AIDS Project, which went from being a quasi-governmental program to one of the largest community-run intervention projects in the world. Sex workers themselves now run the show, and in Sonagachi, famous as the oldest, largest, and most storied red-light district in the city, only 9 percent of about 6000 sex workers are HIV positive. In comparison, rates of infection among Mumbai (formerly Bombay) prostitutes as of 1997 were as high as 70 percent.
Photojournalist | GERMANY | Dirk Gebhardt
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