What is India’s real HIV story?

By: Alifiya Khan

While official estimate says 23 lakh HIV+ people, study by international experts says 17 lakhs

Mid Day

Is it possible for six lakh HIV positive people to disappear overnight? That is exactly what has happened, if you compare National Aids Control Organisation’s (NACO) officially released estimate of people living with HIV in India with a new study by international experts.

And two of the authors of the new study, which has been published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), are senior NACO officials.

The last available data with NACO shows there were an estimated 23 lakh people between 15 and 49 years of age living with HIV in 2006.

Now the new study says that figure was much lower, and puts the number of HIV positive people at 17 lakh.
Published in the February issue of BMJ, the study was conducted using mathematical models on data involving 11 lakh Indian homes. According to it, the actual figure of HIV positive people is at least 40 per cent lower than the 2006 official estimate.

Instead of taking the number of HIV positive people and calculating the number of deaths, as is the method accepted by the World Health Organisation, authors of the study have backdated the data by studying HIV/AIDS deaths in India to arrive at what they claim is the correct figure of people living with HIV.

Experts working in the field of HIV say it is possible the new study gives a more realistic picture than the NACO estimate.

“NACO’s HIV estimation is based on various mathematical models, besides actual surveying of a sample of the population through an annual exercise known as sentinel surveillance,” said a senior official from the National Aids Research Institute on condition of anonymity. “In 2006, NACO had halved its estimate of people living with HIV in India from 5 million (50 lakh) to 2.3 million (23 lakh). This was after there was a huge difference in its estimates and the National Family Health Survey data. But after that it is yet to validate its claim, so it is possible that it was wrong again.”

Dr I S Gilada, who is the founder of Mumbai NGO People’s Health Organisation and has been working in the field for 20 years, said that though the data can be a good pointer, its reliability can only be proven after being ratified by various international agencies.

“The Indian Government uses HIV data to understand how its programmes are working, where it is not and what needs to be done,” said Dr Gilada. “If we assume that HIV data calculated by Indian authorities is incorrect, does it mean the policy decisions were flawed? If so, it a serious issue.”

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