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India to create HIV "safe zones" for migrants
  By Kamil Zaheer -- Interview
NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India will map out high-risk migration corridors and create safe spaces in cities where migrant workers congregate to protect them from the HIV virus, the head of its anti-AIDS agency said on Thursday.
India has the world's highest caseload with around 5.7 million people living with the virus, according to the United Nations, and migrants are considered a very high-risk group.
An estimated one quarter of India's 1.1-billion population, mostly the poor from its villages and towns, move around the country in search of a livelihood every year.
About five percent, or 12-15 million people who travel from their villages to high HIV-prevalence cities and back over short periods, will be a major focus in a new plan against AIDS, said Sujatha Rao, Director-General of the state-run National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO).
"These migrants tend to cluster. What we will try to do is to insulate them from the infection even if they stay in a high-prevalence district," Rao said.
She said the government plans to track migrant concentrations in cities and protect workers through peer education, setting up HIV-testing centres and intensive condom distribution.
Experts say the virus has spread to the countryside because many male migrants from rural areas have sex with prostitutes and infect their wives when they return home. More than half of HIV-positive Indians are in rural areas.
India's third National AIDS Control Plan (NACP-III) -- a $2.6-billion, five-year programme that starts in April -- will also map out "migrant corridors" where large numbers of workers leave one region to work in another for a short time.
"We are looking for the short-migration people who go, come back, go, come back," said Rao.
Government health workers and voluntary agencies would step up HIV prevention campaigns at large "source areas" for migrant workers before they leave for high-prevalence cities.
"At the source point, they will be told, 'Look, you are going there, but there is this disease. You will be tempted, but these are the precautions you have to take'," Rao said.
The budget for NACP-III is around $1.8 billion, of which about 75 percent would be spent on prevention activities, including promotion of condoms among high-risk groups such as prostitutes and migrant workers.
NACO estimates India has around two million sex workers, of whom nearly half use condoms regularly.
In the next three to four years, NACO hopes to bring this to 80 percent as it expands activities among high-risk groups.
"This is where the virus is," Rao said. "There is no point in telling them about fidelity and abstinence. We have to talk to them straight about condoms."
India also plans to step up the number of government treatment centres that provide free AIDS drugs to 121 by March from 101.
NACO says its free treatment programme is hindered by the fact that 86 percent of Indians estimated to be infected do not even know they have the virus.
e minister has apologised, and the health minister has been reflecting on his statements," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuhisa Shiozaki told a news conference, adding that Abe wanted Yanagisawa to put all his efforts into his job.
Yanagisawa apologised yet again on Thursday but vowed to fulfil his responsibilities as the health minister.
"I am really deeply sorry and I want to hold a feeling of respect for women," he told a parliamentary committee.
The main opposition Democratic Party and other smaller parties boycotted budget hearings in the lower house for a second day on demands that Yanagisawa step down.
The ruling camp, however, led by Abe's Liberal Democratic Party, began deliberations after a two-hour delay with lawmakers lambasting the opposition for blocking proper debate.
The uproar comes at a delicate time for Abe, whose leadership skills are under fire after a string of missteps, including the resignation of a cabinet minister for misreporting political funds.
Since taking office in September, Abe has also seen the resignation of his point man on tax reform after reports he was living with a mistress in a government-subsidised apartment. "If the health minister resigns, it would be the third appointee to quit in less than six months," said Muneyuki Shindo, professor of politics at Chiba University.
"Abe's political judgment would come under further criticism and his administration could be ruined," he said.
With the gaffe likely to alienate women voters -- among Abe's staunchest supporters -- the ruling party will be watching nervously for results of local gubernatorial and mayoral elections on Sunday.
Abe has other potential problems as well. Media have reported that two other cabinet ministers were also involved in dubious reporting of political funds. Both have denied wrongdoing.
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