Hundreds of India's national and local leaders have gathered in the capital to discuss a long-simmering problem, AIDS. The United Nations has warned that India must step up efforts to prevent the disease from spiraling out of control.
Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee has asked Indian politicians to come up with an effective and "undelayed response" to counter the challenge posed by the steady rise of AIDS in India.
The scope of the problem was revealed on the eve of the conference, when an official report indicated a sharp rise in the number of HIV and AIDS cases: 4.5 million cases in 2002, a half-million more than a year earlier. This makes India second only to South Africa in the number of people infected with the AIDS virus.
The prime minister admitted that political commitment to health issues in India has been lacking.
"In India, issues pertaining to public health do not normally find a place on the nation's political agenda," he said. "This is not so in other democracies, where sometimes even elections are won or lost on the basis of health issues. It is obvious that political parties in our country need to pay far greater attention to issues of health care than they do now. "
Public education on AIDS has been sporadic in India, whose one billion people present a huge pool of potential victims. In six Indian states, HIV infection rates among pregnant women have already crossed the one percent mark. U.N. officials say the situation is grim, but India still has the opportunity to contain the disease.
The United Nations' top official on AIDS, Peter Piot, urged officials at the conference to scale up AIDS prevention programs rapidly, to spread awareness among the country's huge adolescent population.
The United Nations believes public ignorance is fueling the spread of the disease in countries like India, where people often do not speak openly about sex-related subjects. Mr. Piot urged a change in attitude.
"As community leaders, speaking out, breaking the silence, visiting with people living with HIV and meeting their representatives, can save lives," he said.
India's health minister, Sushma Swaraj, promised a more focused AIDS prevention program to spread information about the disease to every village.
AIDS victims attending the conference urged politicians to provide better health care and cheaper drugs to people infected with the virus.
The two-day conference is being attended by elected officials ranging from village council members to state and federal lawmakers. It is the biggest forum on AIDS ever held in India.