India reported a rise in HIV infections in 2005, a top health official said on Friday, with more than 5.2 million people now thought to be living with the virus -the second largest number in any country after South Africa.
That was an increase of 72,000 from 2004, with high-risk groups like prostitutes and homosexuals the biggest cause for concern, officials said.
Federal health secretary P.K. Hota said that with the increase, especially among high-risk groups, the government should push for legalizing homosexuality and liberalizing laws dealing with prostitution.
“We’ll pursue those provisions of law that criminalize this behavior, push people underground and dehumanize them further. We have to give them a voice and stop the dehumanization,” Hota told Reuters after an AIDS seminar.
But UNAIDS, the United Nations anti-AIDS agency, said pushing for changes in homosexuality and anti-prostitution laws could be difficult in conservative India where sex is not discussed openly by most people.
“The big problem is that politicians don’t think there is much to gain by embracing the homosexual vote,” Denis Broun, India’s coordinator for UNAIDS, said.
The continued rise in infections overshadowed a rare glint of good news last month in an Indo-Canadian study published in the medical journal Lancet. It reported a drop of more than a third in the prevalence of the HIV virus among 15 to 24-year-olds in the southern states of Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.
These states, which are home to 75 percent of people living with HIV in India, have been the focus of the country’s anti-AIDS efforts - apparently with some success.
But northern states like Rajasthan, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, and Punjab, as well as eastern Orissa, are in danger of being lulled into complacency by their comparatively lower rates of infection, Broun said.
“A very low prevalence which is not tackled early can become a higher prevalence,” he said. “At some point you wake up and say ‘Oh dear I’ve got a problem on my hands which I should have tackled some years ago.’”
Revision date: July 7, 2011
Last revised: by Andrew G. Epstein, M.D.