India says it will appoint private consultants to determine the number of people infected with the AIDS virus. The Indian government estimates the number at 5.1 million, the second most in the world after South Africa. But experts say the government is underestimating the size of the problem.
Indian health minister Anbumani Ramadoss says the federal government plans to hire a leading private consultant group to assess exactly how many people in the country are afflicted with the AIDS virus.
The number of HIV and AIDS cases in India has long been a contentious issue. Government and U.N. data show about one half of one percent of the country's one billion population, or five million people, have the virus.
But the U.N. admits the data are not firm, and local and international non-governmental groups believe the figures do not accurately reflect the magnitude of the epidemic in India.
Richard Feachem, head of the Geneva-based Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, said during a recent visit to New Delhi that official estimates in India leave out a vast number of people who could be carrying the virus without knowing or reporting it.
He warned that India was sitting on top of a "grave, ticking HIV/AIDS time bomb" - and said the number of cases had probably surpassed those in South Africa.
I.S. Gilada heads one of India's leading non-governmental groups on AIDS prevention in Bombay. He says health workers estimate that the four worst-affected Indian states, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Karnataka, alone account for more than five million cases.
"These four states have a population of 30 per cent of the country. And in all these four states the HIV prevalence is more than two percent. So we have close to six million, or more than six-million HIV infections in these four states only," Mr. Gilada said.
Health workers say the epidemic is spreading faster in the rural areas than in cities and towns where awareness programs have started making an impact. In these areas poor record-keeping has made it difficult to determine the precise number affected.
International donors who have committed millions of dollars in aid to fight the epidemic, say the challenge is to reach out to the country's 640,000 villages.
The government says its anti-AIDS approach is working, saying India recorded about half a million new HIV cases in 2003, down by more than 15 per cent from the previous year.