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Experts Reduce Estimate of India's HIV Population by Half
  By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, July 7, 2007; Page A10
NEW DELHI, July 6 -- India's HIV population, thought to be the largest in the world, is actually half what experts had previously estimated, according to new figures released Friday by the country's Health Ministry.
The number of Indians infected with HIV is 2 million to 3 million, a large figure but one that accounts for only about 0.3 percent of India's 1.1 billion people. About 0.4 percent of the U.S. population is HIV-positive.
"Today we have a far more reliable estimate of the burden of HIV in India," Health Minister Anbumani Ramadoss said at a news conference in the capital, New Delhi. "In terms of human lives affected, the number is still large, in fact, very large. This is very worrying for us."
The new U.N.-backed estimate comes after health experts and international aid groups such as the World Health Organization expanded their collection of data to include a larger sample of the population. Previously, the number of Indians estimated to have HIV was 5.7 million.
India's government has long rejected criticism of its handling of AIDS issues and denied allegations that it has underestimated its HIV or AIDS populations to save face as the country emerges as a world economic power.
The new estimate was lauded by some here as proof that India has its AIDS problem under control. In terms of total HIV population, it now ranks third, behind South Africa and Nigeria, countries with far smaller populations.
The government on Friday reaffirmed its commitment to fighting the disease. "There is no doubt in my mind we cannot let down our vigil," Ramadoss said.
The announcement of the new estimate coincided with the launch of a five-year, $2.8 billion federal AIDS campaign to prevent the spread of the virus in the country's large under-25 segment, which some estimate at close to half of the population. It will include condom promotion, education, and treatment and care of those with HIV.
Charities working with HIV prevention programs said there are no plans to reduce funding.
"The question about reducing funding is moot," said Ashok Alexander, head of Avahan, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's AIDS program in India. "People who are close to the epidemic still view it with great seriousness."
Talk of sex and AIDS is still taboo in much of India, and Alexander said a commitment to reaching out to prostitutes and other high-risk groups was important to controlling the numbers.
"What I do worry about is that the disease is still stigmatized. It's easy to get a sound bite that AIDS numbers are less," Alexander said. "But there is still a lot of work to be done."
He said AIDS figures were still high in the southern part of India. It was in the north that the figures were overestimated, largely because of a reliance on testing the blood of high-risk groups, such as drug users and prostitutes, rather than the general population.
Treatment challenges remain. Only about 80,000 HIV-positive Indians receive free drugs. Even though India makes generic drugs, few people have access to the largely urban health clinics where the treatments are administered. Also, more doctors and nurses need to be trained in treating AIDS, experts said.
In the next two years, India wants to open 250 AIDS treatment centers and hopes to test 42 million people by 2012.
Staff researcher Robert E. Thomason in Washington contributed to this report.
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