World AIDS Day: Clearing Misconceptions

Worlds, AIDS, Logo, Day,
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We revisit popular AIDS awareness campaigns in India and clear some of the misconceptions about HIV-transmission.

Pulli rajaku AIDS varuma?

Translating to “Will Pulli Raja get AIDS?”, this 2003 Tamil public service announcement (PSA) for AIDS awareness entered popular lexicon in Chennai. As with all effective PSAs, it is based on a simple premise – posing a question for the everyman, in this case for ‘Pulli Raja.” The campaign has a second part.

In this part, the man pouring the drink explains how it’s possible for Pulli Raja to get AIDS. “If a person like you drinks and goes to a woman, and forgets to use protection, then it is certainly possible to get AIDS.”

Despite these ads, there are still a lot of misconceptions about how one contracts HIV/AIDS and manages it. AIDS isn’t an exclusive condition  – heterosexual, homosexual and transsexual couples can all contract it. But the myths surrounding it know no gender.

Zubairiya, 18, identifies as a trans woman. She says she has been having unprotected anal sex since the age of 13, with over a hundred partners so far, all without using a condom. It’s a dangerous practice. Studies that have tried to estimate the prevalence of AIDS within the Hijra community have found figures ranging from 17.5 to 41% of their total population.

Misconceptions about the spread of the virus are widespread. Zubairiya believes that she could tell whether her sexual partners had AIDS by their physical appearance.

HIV/AIDS cannot be diagnosed from a person’s physical appearance. The problem with this myth is that it encourages the social stigma against HIV/AIDS patients – who may or may not show visible symptoms. HIV can manifest itself at an early stage – with or without external symptoms. Those symptoms that exist can be easily conflated with those of other diseases – such as weight-loss, high fever, rashes and the like.

Contact can create infections

The popular belief that HIV/AIDS can be spread by contact alone isn’t rooted in fact. Yet even in hospitals, staff will keep their distance from HIV/AIDS patients. As a ward boy said (from a UNAIDS report):

When the patient comes to our ward, it’s written on the file ‘HIV’ in big letters. Anybody can see it. It’s kept next to the patient.

The disease is transmitted primarily through blood transfusions, or during intercourse. The stigma against HIV/AIDS patients means people tend to keep their distance from them. Despite this, practises such as sharing of needles or unprotected sex remain widespread.

Alternative prevention methods

The safest way to prevent the transmission of HIV/AIDS is to use a condom. However, condom use in India is low, with only 6% of women between the ages of 15-29 estimated to have had one used during intercourse.

Adoption of condoms is further stymied by the belief that it reduces the pleasure of intercourse. For Zubairiya, “when skin touches skin – that is pleasure. There is no pleasure in the feel of rubber.”

There are several methods believed to prevent HIV/AIDS.  As Zubairiya says, “we people do not get AIDS. Because, we eat aloe vera early in the morning, every day. Doctors have checked us, and say there’s nothing wrong with us.”

Some websites mention the method as a possible miracle cure for the disease. However, a British Columbia study found no statistical difference between patients who took the aloe vera extract and those who didn’t.

Whether one believes in aloe vera or not, it’s no substitute for a condom.

Traditional values and yoga

In 2006, the National AID Control Organization rebutted a claim by godman Baba Ramdev that yoga could cure AIDS. But in 2015, the Union Minister of State for Health, Shripad Naik, said the government was looking into Ramdev’s claims – and could approve them if they pass clinical trials.

The government has erred on the matter in the past. In 2014, Minister for Health and Family Welfare, Harsh Vardhan, in an interview with the New York Times, questioned the emphasis on condom use in tackling AIDS. “This sends the wrong message that you can have any kind of illicit sexual relationship, but as long as you’re using a condom, it’s fine,” he said. Popularly reported as India’s health minister asking people to ‘wear values, not condoms’, it showed the ingrained stigma against sexual practice in India – that HIV/AIDS is usually associated with.

Sharing needles on the street

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In some parts of India, street tattoo artists can get you inked for a budget. However, be warned that the needles they use are often shared, and unhygienic. There is a chance of infection if blood is transmitted from one recipient to the other.

The five states with the highest rates of HIV/AIDS incidence are Nagaland, Mizoram, Manipur, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. With half of all AIDS-related deaths in Asia happening in India, the spread of HIV/AIDS has serious socio-economic implications for the country.

South Africa has just begun large-scale clinical trials on a new vaccine for AIDS. With India also contributing towards the development of a vaccine, the day may yet come when HIV/AIDS ceases to be a pandemic. But at the minimum, it will take years before such a goal is accomplished.

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