December 1st is celebrated as World AIDS Day every year to create awareness about AIDS and discuss ways and means to control this deadly disease. This year's theme is the same as that of the last year, "Getting to zero: Zero new HIV infections. Zero discrimination. Zero AIDS related deaths". The same theme will continue over the next two years.
Though it is not possible for a country like India to reach a target of "zero new HIV infections" with immediate effect, countries are given a choice of choosing any of the "Zero" targets, or all if they wish.
AdvertisementIronically, when AIDS was detected in early 1980s, there was not a single case recognized in India. But the failure of the health care system to control the infection saw a whooping increase in the number of cases following the detection of the first case in 1986; estimates from 2009 reveal that there are nearly 2.4 million HIV-positive people living in India! Initially, the infection was seen only in sex workers and truck drivers; today it affects all sections of society.
"Zero AIDS related deaths" would probably be possible by making adequate treatment available free of cost to all AIDS patients. This means that they should receive the recommended regimens under the guidance of an experienced doctor. AIDS medications, if taken as single tablets, lead to resistance and ineffectiveness of the drug; adequate health education should be imparted in this regard. A recent report pointed out that there are very few specialists in India trained in treating AIDS patients. Additional efforts to encourage more doctors to specialize in this line could make a difference to the millions of HIV-positive patients.
"Zero discrimination" is another important aspect necessary especially in India. For fear of contacting the disease, people tend to keep away from a person who is known to be HIV positive. This could lead to people hiding their illness, which could further encourage the spread of the disease. We have heard of people losing jobs because they are HIV positive; innocent children asked to leave school because they carry the virus; some HIV positive people are refused medical treatment. Public education is necessary to remove the stigma and ensure that HIV positive people are an integral part of the society.
"Zero new HIV infections" is probably the most difficult goal to achieve. This calls for increased awareness of the routes of spread of HIV, and ways and means to prevent the spread. Safe sex practices should be advised and condoms should be made easily available. Hospitals and blood banks should maintain strict precautions against the spread of HIV. Injection drug users should also be advised not to use the same syringe.
"Getting to zero" does appear a difficult task for a country like India, but it is not an impossible one. It needs good co-operation between the public, the government and the health care system to achieve this goal.