ON HIS TRIP last week to India, Bill Gates of Microsoft Corp. was treated like a cross between a rock star and a head of state. Politicians lined up to greet him at the airport. Bollywood stars fawned over him. Health Minister Shatrughan Sinha, himself a former film star, joined in the general adulation: "We admire you for your looks," he said. But Mr. Sinha, like many Indians, did not like everything about Mr. Gates's visit. He was delighted to hear Microsoft's founder gush about India's high-tech potential, but when Mr. Gates warned of the potential for an AIDS crisis, Mr. Sinha accused him of "spreading panic."
This ignorant outburst shows why panic may be sane. Mr. Gates had merely been quoting from a U.S. government study, which projects that the number of HIV cases in India may rise from around 4 million now (if you believe official and probably understated figures) to a projected 25 million in 2010. The surest way to help the virus spread is to promote the idea that those who seek to warn against it are mere panic-spreaders; that way, people won't alter their behavior and the virus will win. If Mr. Sinha doubts this, he should consider South Africa, whose leaders ignored warnings of catastrophe going back as far as 1990. Twelve years later, more than one in 10 South Africans (and one in five adults) lives with the virus -- a rate that, if repeated in India, translates into more than 100 million infections.
Mr. Sinha's comment is especially troubling because, as well as being the health minister, he is a senior adviser to the AIDS initiative that will be funded by a grant of $100 million that Mr. Gates announced last week. But Mr. Sinha's attitude is not exceptional. India's elites refuse to acknowledge the scope of the challenge confronting them, and in some cases resist serious action. Elements of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party have objected to education campaigns among prostitutes, arguing that these amount to sponsorship of prostitution. In some parts of the country, AIDS educators have been beaten up by police officers.
Mr. Gates's generous grant, and his willingness to confront India with unpleasant realities, are both valuable. India still has a chance to learn from countries such as Senegal, which has held the HIV prevalence among adults to 0.5 percent. But India will seize that chance only if it makes fighting AIDS a top priority. Politicians and Bollywood stars must learn to appreciate Mr. Gates for his public health message, and not just because he embodies their dreams of silicon success.