Editorial: Irrational prejudice against HIV

That India still has no anti-discrimination law to protect the interests of HIV positive people shows how little the nation as a whole cares about them and how callous society is to their plight. As a result, discrimination against HIV positive people, including children, rears its ugly head time and again. The latest example is the case of 13 HIV positive orphans studying in a school in Rivona, Goa, being forced to leave school because of pressure from parents of other students; these children join the ranks of a couple of hundred others in India who have faced the same fate. Stigma and discrimination have affected and gravely impeded the battle against HIV. Besides anxiety and denial, the mortal fear of being stigmatised and discriminated against prevents many from seeking early testing and treatment. As a result, they not only fail to get timely intervention but also go about infecting others. Only about half of the 2.1 million people in India who are HIV positive are currently on antiretroviral treatment. It’s a shame that this situation prevails even 28 years after the first person with HIV was diagnosed in Chennai. Besides doing nothing to end discrimination, this incident amply demonstrates that the state has failed to raise awareness and dispel the myths and misconceptions about the routes of HIV transmission. The sexual route, transfusion of HIV infected blood, being pricked by a needle used on an HIV positive person, and from infected mother to child are the only modes of HIV transmission. Also, the fact that young children are infected with the virus turns the spotlight on our failing to eliminate transmission from pregnant mother to child. Preventing vertical transmission is one of the easiest ways to cut the incidence rate.

Refusal of school admission and expulsion from school are but only the beginning of a long journey of discrimination and negative social response that HIV positive people encounter. Eviction of HIV positive tenants from houses, refusal to employ such people and even ostracism from villages are not uncommon. But most alarming is the refusal by most private hospitals to admit HIV positive people, and the fear among many doctors and paramedics to treat them. These individuals who are supposed to be best informed seem to suffer from the same paranoia that has seized the common man. In stark contrast, doctors have no hesitation in treating those with hepatitis B and C, which are much more easily transmissible than HIV by the same routes. Hence, the compulsion to broad-base the Health Minister’s initiative to “mainstream AIDS awareness to reduce HIV infection rate” to also address the issue of discrimination cannot be overemphasised.

Published in The Hindu on August 1, 2014