"I think HIV is spreading not because of people who know their HIV status, but because of those who don't know their HIV status. If the vehicles are here for some time, even I would like to get tested if it is done for free," Kanan, a peanut vendor on the beach, said as he watched the vans rolling out Friday.
With Tamil Nadu aggressively stepping up awareness and testing facilities for HIV/AIDS, the Tamil Nadu State AIDS Control Society (Tansacs) has already set up 760 testing labs.
Tansacs data shows that by September this year about 1.5 million people had taken the HIV test.
The National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO) is also providing cell phone alerts about the need for every individual to test for HIV/AIDS and that there is a testing facility nearby. India has 2.5 million HIV/AIDS patients, according to NACO.
"The mobile vans are an addition and will take our AIDS care campaign to the remotest areas," said Supriya Sahu, the Tansacs project director.
"Testing and counselling services have now been made available up to block primary health centres (PHCs). The integrated counselling and testing centres (ICTCs) are also located in all medical colleges and district hospitals," she said.
The programme seeks to ensure that people have optimum access to voluntary HIV testing and counselling services at the nearest location.
The first vans will be moving in the rural areas of Dharmapuri, Namakkal, Salem, Coimbatore, the Nilgiris, Dindigul, Krishnagiri and Thiruvannamalai districts, especially in tribal areas where laboratory access is not available.
One van will be mobile in Chennai itself and another in the temple town of Madurai. The government hopes that urban slums will also benefit from these doorstep services.
Given the flexibility of time and location it is hoped that the services will also be easily accessible to migrant labourers and daily wage earners.
"It is indeed true that testing is best not only for HIV but also for any infections," said Selvalaxmi from the Chennai Network of Positive People, adding her voice to the crowd of approving people.
"These mobile vans will reduce fear among the general public to get tested for HIV; this will also motivate people to get themselves tested. It will be very useful for the tribal population, which still isn't aware of HIV or AIDS," she added.
Kumudha, a member of the Positive Women's Network, said: "This is a great opportunity, especially for women in rural and remote areas to get themselves tested for HIV and also know more on HIV."
"Though there are so many ICTCs available all over the state, women due to various reasons, including fear and lack of empowerment, are not able to access these centres. These vans will bring about a remarkable change in the lives of women," she added.
Ramapandian, president of the Tamil Nadu Network of Positive People, said the early diagnosis of HIV would help people access the available treatment.
Kousalya, president of the Positive Women's Network, agreed: "These vans would help women in remote rural areas who were not able to access these centres due to fear and ignorance."
Each van will have a technician and a counsellor. The district collector charts the route. Each van costs about Rs.300,000. The programme is being supported by the Red Cross Societies.
The prevalence of HIV/AIDS has fallen to 0.3 per hundred in Tamil Nadu in 2007, which once topped the chart of states in India with the maximum number of affected people.