Getting AIDS Education on Track in India

"We had a session on AIDS in school once, but . . . I still do not know the difference between HIV and AIDS," says Ravindri Chaudhury, left. (By Rama Lakshmi -- The Washington Posts)
By Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, December 7, 2007

ALWAR, India -- Seventeen-year-old Ravindri Chaudhury and some classmates lined up Sunday morning to board an unusual train called the Red Ribbon Express, which had pulled into their dusty town. Chaudhury had a lot of questions about AIDS but did not know whom to ask. So she hoped the colorfully painted train, with its traveling AIDS exhibition and counseling center, would give her some answers.

"Will I get AIDS from mosquito bites? From sharing a soda?" she asked, then whispered her next question shyly. "Will I get AIDS from kissing?" Her friends giggled, covering their mouths with their palms.

Chaudhury, an arts undergraduate, said that her parents often shoo her from the room when condom ads and AIDS announcements appear on television.

"We had a session on AIDS in school once, but it was sketchy. I still do not know the difference between HIV and AIDS. We could not ask any questions, because the boys in our class would tease us later," she said as her friends nodded in agreement. "At home, my mother knows even less, and my father would not allow such a conversation."

Chaudhury and her friends illustrate the daunting challenge of communicating AIDS information to young people in a society that regards discussion of the disease as taboo.

So the Indian government has launched the Red Ribbon Express, hoping to hold the line on growth of an HIV-positive population that now numbers about 2.5 million people, according to a recent U.N. report, one-third of them in the 15-24 age group.

About 80 percent of Indians ages 15 to 24 have heard of HIV and AIDS, the Health Ministry reports, but only 57 percent of them can correctly identify prevention methods.

Fifteen years after India began a national anti-AIDS program, officials say the Red Ribbon Express represents an admission that the general population remains woefully ignorant about the disease.

Some progress has been reported, however, among high-risk groups such as sex workers, truckers and intravenous drug users.

"We hope the train will carry the message to a wider population beyond the high-risk groups," said Sujata Rao, head of the government-run National AIDS Control Organization, which coordinates all prevention programs in India.

Last Saturday, on World AIDS Day, senior political leaders in New Delhi saw the train off on its first mission -- a 17,000-mile, year-long journey to deliver information on AIDS to about 60,000 villages.

Assisted by UNICEF, the train project aims to attract millions of people to 180 train station stops. Those in remote villages will be visited by a band of cyclists distributing pamphlets and by buses carrying folk entertainers and exhibits.

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