Monday, June 19, 2006

Indian wives face growing HIV/AIDS threat

Krittivas Mukherjee:

The Indian housewife is facing a "tremendous threat" from HIV/AIDS as age-old social customs and a lack of awareness restrict access to protection from sexually-transmitted infections, experts warned on Monday.

Recent studies carried out at clinics have revealed higher than expected HIV infection rates among groups of previously deemed low-risk women, such as monogamous housewives.

In India's deeply conservative and male-dominated society, women -- both married and engaged -- are prevented from actively protecting their health when it comes to sex, the research shows.

"We need to expand the focus to include married, monogamous women who may not perceive themselves to be at risk, but whose personal risk is inextricably linked to the behavior of their husbands," said Suniti Solomon, of the Y.R. Gaitonde Center for AIDS Research and Education, a leading center monitoring HIV/AIDS.

"As more and more women get infected, notions of risk group need to be redefined to more accurately assess potential for HIV infections."

The surveys show that a majority of HIV-infected women did not report a history of multiple partners, intravenous drug use or blood transfusions, and appear to have been infected through sex with their infected husbands.

Solomon's organization recently reported that in a study of 3,357 women more than 85 percent of those who tested positive had a single sexual partner.

Experts say the Indian housewife's perception of the HIV risk she is facing, and even her awareness of HIV/AIDS, may be low since traditionally intervention programs have targeted high-risk populations, such as sex workers and drug users.

"The housewife is under tremendous threat. It is now an established fact in the high prevalence states. But we know nothing about the low prevalence states," said Akhila Sivadas, executive director of Center for Advocacy and Research.

Last Month, UNAIDS, the U.N.'s AIDS prevention agency, said there were an estimated 5.7 million Indians living with the deadly virus at the end of 2005, more than in any other country and ahead of South Africa's 5.5 million cases.

But the Indian authorities have dismissed the figure, saying the number of infections stood at an estimated 5.2 million.

Experts say the number of people infected could quadruple within five years and the World Bank warns HIV/AIDS will become the single largest killer in India unless there is more progress on prevention.


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