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Indian Politicans Urge Greater Action on AIDS Treatment, Prevention - 2003-07-27

In India, politicians have wrapped up a two-day conference on AIDS by vowing to find new ways to control the dreaded disease. The United Nations says greater political involvement could stem the spread of the disease in India, which now has the largest number of people living with HIV infections after South Africa.

Hundreds of village council leaders, mayors and legislators across the political spectrum have adopted a declaration in New Delhi stating that voluntary agencies, political parties and other social groups will actively participate in finding ways to stem the spread of AIDS.

The legislators did not specify how this would be done, but they promised to allocate more resources to AIDS prevention programs.

Leader of the main opposition Congress party, Sonia Gandhi, has urged the government to pay special attention to AIDS prevention programs in areas where infection rates are still low.

"While the infection rate may have reached epidemic levels in a few states, there are large, populous parts of our country where the spread of HIV/AIDS is fortunately still limited. It must remain so if we are to be spared a disaster. This too will require special attention since many of the states are poor and lack physical and social infrastructure," Ms. Gandhi said.

Since the first case of HIV was reported in India 17 years ago, the number of Indians carrying the virus has swelled to a staggering four and a half million - about one out of every 200 people. The disease has spread from high-risk groups such as sex workers and truck drivers to people living in interior villages and cities with large migrant populations.

Leaders of several states have promised to reduce taxes on anti-retroviral drugs needed by AIDS patients. Although several Indian drug companies manufacture these medicines, they are too expensive for most AIDS sufferers.

Senior political leaders also urged local leaders to find ways to end the stigma and discrimination faced by AIDS patients in India's conservative society.

U.N. officials are hoping the conference will focus government attention on the disease, particularly at the local level. They said countries like India have better human resources, more money and infrastructure to deal with the disease than many countries in Africa, and can halt the spread of AIDS before it is too late.