Expert: New AIDS threat emerging in India among ‘call center Romeos’

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) _ A new AIDS threat is rising in India’s numerous call centers, where young staff are increasingly having unprotected sex with multiple partners in affairs developed during night shifts, a top AIDS expert has warned. While India has made great strides in bringing down its HIV infection rate, the promiscuity among "call center Romeos" is a great concern, Dr. Suniti Solomon, who detected the first HIV case in India in 1986, told an international medical conference Saturday. The United Nations, however, still estimates there are some 2.5 million Indians living with HIV and AIDS now.

"India has reached a plateau of the infections," Solomon told the International Congress on Infectious Diseases, which ends Sunday. Her concern now is the call centers, where many of the young staff work at night to correspond with the daytime working hours of their American and European clients. "They have all the money. They huddle together in the night.They are young, they are sexually active, so naturally they start," Solomon, who runs an AIDS center in the southern city of Chennai, told The Associated Press in a separate interview. She said at least three or four call center workers visit her clinic every week to get tested for HIV because they are worried after having unprotected sex.

It is estimated that India’s call centers employ some 1.3 million people, mostly youths fresh out of school and colleges, earning a starting salary of 25,000 rupees (US$600) a month, more than a government doctor’s paycheck. "You will see call center Romeos are a major high risk for HIV," Solomon said.

There are no figures for how many call center workers are infected with HIV. Citing confessions by the visitors to her center, Solomon said groups of young men and women rent apartments along the beach during the weekends and end up having multiple-partner sex. "If they are having sex just among themselves, and all are non-infected it is fine.

But if there is one person who has gone out of this group and brought in the virus, it will spread to everyone," she said. While the "call center Romeo" situation is a reflection of recent liberal values, India’s anti-AIDS fight is also hampered by society’s coexisting conservatism, Solomon told the conference.

She said this is evident in Hindu activists’ opposition to circumcision which is proven to help inhibit HIV transmission on the grounds that it is against tradition and religion of Hindu-majority India. Solomon said she does not expect India to accept circumcision for preventing HIV infections.

A recent government study to gauge the acceptance for circumcision triggered a massive backlash by Hindu fundamentalists, who called it "obnoxious" and "a conspiracy." "If you go out into the streets and say I will do this (circumcision) to reduce HIV, there will be a chaos," she said.

"Vaccines have failed. Microbicides have failed. This is one tool we have in hand but we can’t use it.".

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