AIDS may affect a large number of pavement dwellers in Kolkata in the years to come, considering the prevailing rampant sexual abuse and unawareness about healthcare, a study by the National Institute of Cholera and Enteric Diseases (NICED) has indicated.
A recent study conducted by NICED has found that at least six out of 554 street children in the age group of five to 14 in Kolkata city are HIV positive, while 22 suffer from syphilis.
Kolkata has an estimated number of over 11,000 street children.
The high number of incidents of sexually transmitted diseases (STD) among street children is poised to become a serious health hazard in future.
Sexual abuse has been identified as the main cause for these children suffering from sexually transmitted diseases. Nine per cent of the children interviewed during the study reported some or other form of sexual abuse. The children were unaware that they had already infected.
According to Kamalesh Sarkar, Deputy Director, Division of Epidemiology, National Institute of Cholera and Enteric Diseases (NICED), random blood samples taken during the study had revealed that from HIV to Hepatitis-B, the children had it all.
While one per cent of the children were HIV positive, four per cent had syphilis and six per cent had Hepatitis-B.
He, however, added that none suffered from full-blown AIDS, which would take about 10 years to become full blown after the initial HIV infection.
"Through our team approach, we identified or we reached to these 554 street children. We interviewed them using a pre-tested questionnaire to understand their risk behaviour, risk perception and following that, we collected about 500ml blood samples for testing HIV and VDRL (Venereal Disease Research Laboratory) to test the syphilis ...and Hepatitis B. The result reveals, which we are very much surprised to know, that out of this 554, six were positive with HIV and four percent were positive with syphilis; that means VDRL positivity, and about six percent were infected with Hepatitis B. Naturally, all were HIV infected but no one was found to be suffering from full blown AIDS," said Kamalesh Sarkar, Deputy Director of the Division of Epidemiology.
Research assistant Baishali Bal pointed out that girls over the age of 15 reported higher incidence of sexual abuse when they stepped out of their homes to find work, while boys were physically abused, when young, by older boys on the streets.
About 30 per cent of the children also reported non-tobacco substance abuse.
"Nine percent street children were sexually abused and we found that substance abuse among street children was higher among male children above the age of 15 years, and in female children, substance abuse was found more in age group below 15 years. Girl child above 15 years are abused sexually," said Bal.
The problem lies in the fact that being homeless, they fail to come within the purview of any intervention programmes. Nor do they have access to sustained health care.
Most of these children are beggars, rag pickers, vendors, shoe-shiners, car cleaners or porters. About 85 per cent sleep in public places like pavements, railway stations, under flyovers etc.
The NICED has proposed setting up night shelters and support centres for street children at public places where they can stay, so that proper health care and social intervention can be carried out.
There are an estimated 300 million street children across the world, struggling for survival without access to food, shelter and proper clothing.
According to the estimates of the Asian Development Bank, about 25 million children are living on the streets of Asia. India has the world's largest concentration of street children.