India “totally disagrees” with a UN report saying the country now has the highest number of people living with the HIV virus in the world and is a major concern in the global AIDS epidemic, the health minister said.
An estimated 5.7 million Indians were infected by the end of 2005, the Geneva-based United Nations body said Tuesday in a biennial study, more than the estimated 5.5 million people in South Africa.
“I am surprised by the UNAIDS report. I totally disagree with it,” Health Minister Anubumani Ramadoss told the Press Trust of India news agency on the sidelines of an anti-tobacco conference.
Ramadoss disputed the UN estimates, saying the number of infections in India stood at about 5.2 million.
“I don’t know how they have arrived at this new number,” he said, according to a United News of India agency report.
The country’s National AIDS Control Organization (NACO) last month said that 5.2 million adults were infected with HIV.
“NACO has scientifically arrived at this number on the basis of sentinel surveillance sites in the country. Even the WHO (World Health Organization) and UNAIDS had been associated with the process,” Ramadoss said.
The UN agency’s India chief Dennis Broun told the Times of India daily from New York that UNAIDS took a “cradle to grave” approach for its estimates, instead of looking only at people between the ages of 15 to 49.
The head of NACO, which drives India’s policy on AIDS, was also in New York for a UN meeting reviewing the global response to AIDS in the last five years and could not be reached for comment.
The UN report criticized India for failing to make much of a dent in infection rates, with new cases tripling last year according to Indian figures, and for treating only a small percentage of those who have the disease.
India’s overall rate of adult infections is far lower than South Africa’s because of the relative size of their populations.
But the UN said there was little or no progress in cutting rates in India’s northern states, where drug use was the main driver of HIV infection.
The report did note, however, that HIV prevalence had been declining in four states in the south, including Tamil Nadu.
The global agency also expressed concern about the large numbers of teenagers who were being trafficked into the sex trade in India.
“India and Pakistan are the main destinations for trafficked girls aged under 16 years, especially from Bangladesh and Nepal,” the report said.
“They are often placed in situations where they cannot negotiate condom use, are forced to endure multiple sex partners and are subjected to violent sex.”
When it comes to treating AIDS the country was also lagging, with only seven percent of Indians who needed antiretroviral HIV/AIDS drugs receiving them last year, compared to 25 percent in China.
In addition, only 1.6 percent of pregnant women who needed treatment to prevent mother-to-child HIV transmission were receiving it.
The UN’s Broun called India’s treatment rate “dismal,” according to the Times of India.
But the health minister said the low rate of treatment was because the program to offer AIDS drugs to infected mothers was started only four years ago, while a broader program began as recently as 2004.
“We can’t cover everyone overnight,” Ramadoss told reporters.
NEW DELHI (AFP)
Revision date: June 18, 2011
Last revised: by Sebastian Scheller, MD, ScD