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India's AIDS Cases Less Than Half of Previous Estimates

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New estimates by the Indian government and international agencies show that the number of people living with HIV/AIDS in India is between two and three million - far less than previously estimated. However, as Anjana Pasricha reports from New Delhi, Indian officials say the country is committed to an aggressive campaign to control the epidemic.

Health Minister Anbumani Ramadoss said Friday that the number of people afflicted with the AIDS virus in India is just half of previous estimates of 5.7 million.

"Many of you know that we have always been found fault with for underestimating the seriousness of the epidemic…. Today we have with us a far more reliable estimate of the burden of HIV disease in India…. We have been able to arrive at a robust figure that all our experts feel is as correct as we can get," he said. "The results show that there are an estimated two million to 3.1 million people infected with HIV/AIDS."

The estimate was cut after experts from India and international bodies such as the World Health Organization used a new way of collecting data based on general population surveys, which experts say is more accurate.

The new estimates means India does not have the world's largest number of infections as previously believed, but ranks third after South Africa and Nigeria.

That means the infection rate is about 0.36 percent in a population of more than one billion people, rather than 0.9 percent as earlier thought. Indian officials said that HIV rates in several southern Indian states, which had high infection rates, have also begun to stabilize or decline.

However, Health Minister Ramadoss says the AIDS numbers are still daunting.

"Moreover, in terms of human lives affected, the numbers are still large, in fact very large and very worrying for us," he said. "There is no doubt in my mind we cannot let down our vigil."

Indian officials say the lower estimates will not deflect the country's attention from an aggressive campaign to control the disease.

In fact, the lower estimates were announced simultaneously with the launch of a new $2.8 billion federal AIDS control program. Officials say the five-year program will focus on preventing the spread of the virus among the country's huge youth population. It will include AIDS education and condom promotion, and treatment and care of those suffering from the disease.

Volunteer agencies and U.N. officials also stressed that much work remains to be done to halt the epidemic's spread in India.

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