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Volunteers Encourage HIV Carriers in India to Seek Happiness with Each Other

Several volunteer groups in India are helping young people afflicted with the AIDS virus to marry each other. It is a small but important initiative in a country with a least five million HIV carriers, who often suffer from misunderstanding and discrimination.

Twenty eight-year-old Usha is dressed in a cream-and-gold sari and wears red flowers in her hair. She smiles and exchanges happy glances with her husband as they distribute traditional Indian sweets in a medical clinic in the southern Indian city of Chennai.

Usha and Murthy were wed just days earlier, and could be any young couple starting out their married life.

But theirs is a story with a difference. Both are HIV positive, and they have they returned after the wedding to the clinic where she was treated, to share their joy with friends there.

Usha picked up the infection when she was less than 20 years old from her first husband, who died within years of their marriage. Thirty-year-old Murthy learned he was HIV positive ten years ago, on the eve of taking up an overseas job.

Usha, the young widow, returned to live in her parental home. Murthy was devastated when he learned he had the virus. He took a job in New Delhi instead of going abroad, and learned to cope with the infection.

When he decided he wanted to marry early this year, doctors advised him to find an HIV positive girl. An AIDS clinic in Chennai helped these two young and lonely people come together.

Usha says she is thrilled at the prospect of picking up the threads of a normal life. Murthy echoes her delight as he translates for her.

"She is feeling very happy, she is feeling new life. Like other people we can also live life, just like a normal person," he said.

This young couple is part of a growing number of people with HIV who are being encouraged by volunteer groups to marry fellow carriers.

Most efforts to help HIV victims marry have been informal, led by workers in support groups who help arrange matches. But more than a year ago, a volunteer group in the Western state of Gujarat established India's first marriage bureau for HIV patients.

It is run by 28-year-old Daksha Patel in Surat city. She and her husband are both HIV positive. She says her own happy married life motivated her to start the bureau.

The bureau first checks out the men who enroll to ensure they are working and able to support their wives. It then begins the process of matchmaking. It is not an easy job, because many more men than women come forward.

Even then, she says, some men are choosy - they want pretty wives who can do housework. Others are less selective, and are willing to marry widows, or women from other castes.

Despite the hurdles in this deeply traditional country, the bureau has helped seven couples marry. Daksha Patel says they all appear to be faring well.

"Before their married life they are alone, they feel very lonely, they are not able to talk with another people, there is some secret feelings also, but now they are living very happily," she said.

In India more than five million people live with HIV, the second largest number in the world after South Africa. AIDS activists say the number in India is even higher. Many of the victims are young, and the infection has spread from high-risk groups such as prostitutes and truck drivers to all strata of society.

Suniti Solomon, India's pioneering AIDS activist who runs a clinic for HIV victims in Chennai, says several years ago, most of them faced a bleak future, because the anti-retroviral treatment that blocks AIDS symptoms cost an unaffordable $800 a month.

But in the last two years, the cost of the drugs has dropped dramatically, raising hopes of longer life spans and an active life for HIV-positive people.

"Maybe two percent of my patients could afford it then," she said. "Today the same drugs are $20 a month…and roughly fifty percent of my patients are on drugs. And they can afford to buy it, and once they take it for about six months, they are fit and fine and they start working again."

However, the intense stigma surrounding the disease forces patients to live in a social shell, hiding their status from all except one or two understanding family members. They might be ostracized by even their relatives, turned out of jobs, or refused treatment at hospitals.

That led counselors to think people with HIV, if relatively healthy, might be happier fighting their battles together than alone.

Ramola James, an HIV counselor in Chennai, says she encourages young carriers to marry, because it offers two victims the hope of care and support in a country that has no social welfare system.

"In the longer run they need a person as a companion…. At present, the parents will be taking care of the person who is unmarried, but for how long will the parents stay by this person's side?" she asked.

In general, India's official focus is firmly on halting the spread of HIV/AIDS. Volunteers like Ramola James say their efforts are a small step in a country where little attention has been paid to those who already suffer from the disease.