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India's Youth Leaders Join Fight Against Spread of AIDS

India says youth leaders in the country will join the fight against AIDS. The latest initiative comes as the number of HIV-positive Indians rises to more than five million, the second highest in the world after South Africa.

Since about one-third of all new HIV infections in India affect people between 15 and 25 years old, student and youth leaders have vowed to come to the frontlines in the battle against AIDS.

At a meeting Saturday and Sunday in New Delhi, 3,000 college and university leaders, and youth leaders from political parties said they will build a movement to raise awareness about AIDS prevention among young people.

The youth leaders say they will focus on cutting through the silence that surrounds the subject in India, where open discussion about sex and AIDS is taboo, especially in rural areas.

Amrita Dhawan, secretary of the National Students Union of India, says student leaders are being trained to speak about the subject both at home and in the classroom.

"Sex education should be given from the class fifth," said Amrita Dhawan. "We all have decided in the training that we will provide the education from our homes by telling our sisters, brothers and then going to schools."

The initiative is supported by the United Nations, which says young people are highly vulnerable to HIV infection. The UN-AIDS executive director, Peter Piot, says young people must try to remove myths and misconceptions about the disease, which is swelling to epidemic proportions in India.

"Frankly I don't know what kind of statistics you need to state that this is an epidemic," said Mr. Piot. "Throughout the country every single minute at least one person becomes infected with HIV in this country. So that is a serious situation."

By India's count, there are a little over five million HIV/AIDS cases in the country. But leading international aid agencies say the number is much higher because tens of thousands of cases are undocumented.

The head of India's National AIDS Control Organization, S.Y. Quraishi, says there is growing concern about the spread of AIDS among the young. He says the country's response has been too slow to cope with the rapidly rising number of infections.

"We feel we have to take it up in a mission mode. Otherwise the thief is moving in a Ferrari and we are trying to catch him on a bicycle. That has to change," he said.

For years, India resisted acknowledging that AIDS poses an urgent problem. But health experts say the country appears to be waking up to the huge challenge on its hands as the disease spills over from high-risk groups, such as sex workers, to the general population and from urban to rural areas.