India to Increase HIV Treatment Centers

The Associated Press
Friday, September 29, 2006; 7:06 AM

NEW DELHI -- Indian authorities plan to nearly double the number of treatment centers providing free drugs and medical care to people battling HIV/AIDS, a senior official said Friday.

The National AIDS Control Organization, part of India's health ministry, hopes to reach about 85,000 people with drugs and treatment once all the treatment centers open.

India has come under increasing criticism from international health groups for failing to meet the National AIDS Control Organization's own goal of getting free AIDS drugs to 100,000 people by the end of 2005.

The U.N. AIDS organization said in May that India's 5.7 million infections meant the country has the highest number of people in the world living with HIV. India has more than 1 billion people.

The National AIDS Control Organization has increased the number of health centers providing AIDS medicines from 54 to 91 this year, with nine more centers to open by the end of October, said Sujatha Rao, who heads the organization.

"Our first priority now will be to launch a massive publicity campaign to let people know that free anti-retroviral drugs for HIV/AIDS are available at these centers and that they should reach out for free treatment," Rao said. "We also have drugs available for 10,000 children and have begun a state-by-state search to identify children suffering from HIV/AIDS."

Ignorance and the stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS have meant that many infected people do not get the drugs even when they are free, she said.

The campaign was expected to include newspaper, television and radio advertisements, and posters at primary health centers across the country giving details about the network of treatment centers.

Budget constraints for the AIDS prevention programs also are a problem. Health authorities in Indian have earmarked $200 million for the financial year 2006-2007.

"This is not enough. But we have to balance what we are spending on AIDS with other health priorities," Rao said.

Most of the centers are concentrated in Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Manipur and Karnataka _ all states with a high incidence of HIV/AIDS. All the centers are to have specially trained doctors, counselors and laboratory technicians.

© 2006 The Associated Press