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HIV infection rates have grown to epidemic proportions in India, with reports showing somewhere between 2.5 and 3.25 million cases of the disease reported across the country.
According to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia, with the rate of infection on the rise, the number of cases in India may soon outnumber those in South Africa‚ the world's leader in HIV/AIDS.
UNAIDS, the United Nations organization to combat AIDS worldwide, believes that more than 34 million people are infected with HIV across the globe. In addition, estimates from the Alliance for AIDS Action state that nearly 13% of that number resides in India.
With heavy transmission throughout the sex trade industry, the infection rates among sex workers reach as high as 54% in some places. And, since there has been little information about detection or prevention of HIV, the spread of the virus has been fast and lethal.
A “UNAIDS report highlighted that commercial sex serves as a major driver of the epidemic in most parts of India” (Bio-Medicine). “The mobility of the sex workers is a likely factor contributing to HIV transmission” (World Bank).
“Migration for work takes people away from the social environment of families and community. This can lead to an increased likelihood to engage in risky behavior” (ibid.). Truck drivers transporting goods across the country frequent roadside rest stops or hotels for sex, and carry the disease back to their homes and communities.
This has allowed its spread into other populations, specifically the wives and children of truck drivers. “A significant portion of new infections is occurring in women who are married and who have been infected by their husbands” (UNAIDS/WHO).
UNICEF reported that more than 200,000 children in India have HIV, and close to one-quarter or more are born each year to mothers infected by the virus.
While there has been some initial success with programs to prevent the spread of the disease, such as education and distribution of condoms for sex workers, the long-term effects are yet unknown. Despite this, a sense of urgency about the epidemic remains. Tarun Das, of the Indian Business Trust for HIV/AIDS, said, “I think HIV/AIDS needs to be declared a national emergency. We have not done it as yet. Not enough people are on board” (The Financial Express).