At least six out of every 554 street children in the age group of five to fourteen in Kolkata are HIV positive, a study conducted by the National Institute of Cholera and Enteric Diseases (NICED) has found.
Kolkata has an estimated number of over 11,000 street children.
Sexual abuse was 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 form or other of sexual abuse. The children didn't even know that they had these diseases.
According to Dr 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 and VDRL, 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.
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.
Dr Sarkar said that no case of AIDS was detected in the children, adding that the disease took about 10 years to become full blown after the initial HIV infection.
AIDS might take on epidemic proportions amongst the pavement dwellers in that period of time, considering the rampant sexual abuse and lack of awareness and health care. The high incidence of sexually transmitted diseases among street children is poised to become a serious health hazard in future.
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.
Most of these children are either beggars, rag pickers, vendors, shoe-shiners, car cleaners or porters and about 85 per cent slept in public places like pavements, railway stations, under flyovers etc.
The study found that while majority of these children had either one or both parents, they lacked family ties or bonding, love, care and guidance, leading to increased risk behaviour like substance abuse, crime and violence.
The NICED has proposed setting up of night shelters and support centres for the street children at the public places where they 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 in Asia. India has the world's largest concentration of street children. By Ajitha Menon