The amateurish multi-million rupee HIV/AIDS awareness campaigns of the cash-strapped Union ministry of health and family welfare (public health expenditure in India aggregates a mere 0.9 percent of GDP per year cf. 4.8 percent in Brazil and 6.9 percent in the US) seem to be making no impact upon the public as indicated by rising ostracisation of HIV/AIDS afflicted children across the country. Recently in Allahabad the names of Raju Kumar (9) and his sister Ranjana (7) were struck off the muster roll of a government primary school in the Jasra block, when their HIV positive status became known to school authorities.
Speaking to the media on August 22, Raghvendra Nath Tripathi, the principal of the government primary admitted: “I have asked the children not to come to school. Parents in the village are refusing to send their children if these two children continue to attend classes. I had to look at the greater benefit.”
Although it’s medically proven as the health ministry’s ad campaigns in the media — mainly on television — proclaim, that HIV/AIDS is not contagious except through sexual intercourse, discrimination against children declared or suspected of being HIV positive is growing in India’s most populous state. Last August in Harka (Kushinagar), Nirmala Devi, a poor lower caste widow employed as a cook in a primary school was fired when her HIV positive status became known. Her children, an eight-year-old son and a ten-year-old daughter, were also hounded out of school. According to Future Forsaken: Abuses Against Children Affected by HIV/AIDS in India, 2004, a report published by the Human Rights Watch, USA, most HIV positive children manage to attend school only by hiding their health status.
In the case of the Kumar siblings, even though Allahabad’s district magistrate Rajeev Agarwal issued orders directing the principal to re-admit the children, the villagers adamantly stuck to their demand. Visits by education secretary Brijesh Mishra to the government primary where he sat Raju in his lap to demonstrate that the HIV virus is not transmitted by social contact, failed to dilute the fears of village elders.
According to the National AIDS Control Society (NACO) there are 70,000 HIV positive children in India while the number of full-blown AIDS cases in the 0-14 age group were estimated at 5,500 in 2006. Statistics of the Union ministry of health and family welfare predict that at the current rate, 21,000 children will become susceptible to the AIDS virus every year. However Unicef India estimates the total number of infected children at 220,000. But even this number could be an under-estimate as HIV/AIDS anti-retroviral programmes cover only 15 percent of India’s youth (below 24 years) population of 550 million.
By all accounts, government HIV/AIDS awareness ad campaigns have failed miserably. In 2006, an Action Aid supported study Scenario of HIV Vulnerability and Prevalence in Uttar Pradesh found that in a sample size of 17,516 government school students, 30 percent were of the opinion that HIV-positive children should be isolated, while an overwhelming 78 percent didn’t want them to attend school.
Meanwhile to the credit of the state government, the Kumar siblings have been attending classes, but attendance in the school has fallen from 212 to 25. Mishra says the administration is committed to ensuring the welfare of the children. “The principal succumbed to pressure but no one will be allowed to practice discrimi-nation against innocent children even if they are HIV positive. This is an important test case,” he says.
Vidya Pandit (Lucknow)