Darjeeling, known as the queen of the hills in India, has emerged as a new HIV hotspot with two persons infected in every 100, according to the latest survey on India's HIV epidemic from the National AIDS Control Organisation (Naco).
The northern Bengal district is among nine places across India's newly identified by Naco as emerging hotspots with HIV prevalence rates of more than 1 per cent. Public health experts say that the increase from below 1% to more than 1% indicates that the infection is spreading from high-risk groups into the general population.
"Nine new districts (with a prevalence of over 1 per cent) have popped up," Naco director-general Kanuru Sujatha Rao said today. Patna, Banka and Sitamarhi in Bihar, Indore (Madhya Pradesh), Deogarh (Orissa), Kasargod (Kerala), Amreli (Gujarat), and Jangir-Champa in Chhattisgarh are the other places that have added to the list of 87 such high-burden districts.
The new figures emerged from surveillance during 2007 and Naco officials and public health specialists are puzzled about the increase in HIV/AIDS prevalence in Darjeeling.
"Each district is likely to have its own tale," said Ashok Alexander, director of Avahan, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's HIV prevention initiative in India.
"An increase in migration is something you might look for. The question to be asked is whether it (Darjeeling) has seen a greater influx of migrant labour or tourists," he added.
Darjeeling, the tourist spot the British developed, also sees a continuous movement of people across the Nepal border.
"But the rise to a level above 1 per cent indicates a spillover from high-risk groups into the general population," Alexander voiced his concern.
According to public health experts it is difficult to contain the spread of the HIV virus after it has moved into the general population. It is comparatively simpler to check the spread of virus when it is confined to high-risk groups such as commercial sex workers or injecting drug users.
Health sector analysts tracking the HIV infection believe India's biggest handicap in fighting AIDS is that certain high-risk groups remain "hidden" from interventions or actions that will allow them to learn and access steps to prevent infections.