Destigmatising HIV: The Work Continues
It is disturbing to know that Nagaland has the third-highest prevalence rate of adult HIV in the country. The Nagaland State AIDS Control Society (NSACS) has revealed in its report that out of the 10, 16,700 blood samples screened between 1999 and 2018 in the state, 22,878 were reported HIV positive. What is even more disturbing is that the rate of vertical transmission of HIV (mother-to-child) in the state is high. According to the annual report of Health and Family Welfare department, the government of Nagaland, which was tabled in the recently concluded Assembly session, 59 children aged below 14 were tested positive for HIV between April and December 2019. It added that a total of 1117 children have been tested positive in the state for the virus since 2007 and that 549 of them are under Antiretroviral Therapy (ART). The actual figure can be higher as many pregnant women, especially those from rural areas, either avoid antenatal screening test for HIV/AIDS or ignorant of the need to go through the procedure which is vital to protect their health as well as their newborns.
According to the UNICEF, the number of children aged 0–14 living with HIV around the world has declined over the years, from 21,60,000 (out of which 4,30,000 or 20% were on ART) in 2010 to 17,30,000 (out of which 9,40,000 or 54% were on ART) in 2019. Concerted efforts of the global community have helped in containing the spread of the virus to some extent and it is a positive sign but the fact remains that HIV continues to be a major global public health issue, especially in underdeveloped and developing countries. This calls for the need to create awareness, enhance access to HIV prevention, diagnosis and treatment.
Nobody should be forced to take a test for HIV as it not only infringes human rights but also undermines public health practice. However, medical experts strongly recommend it, for both the partners, as the procedure is necessary for elimination of parent-to-child transmission of the disease. Most infants get the virus either during pregnancy, labour, delivery or breastfeeding, and testing is the only way to find out if one has the virus. Early diagnosis and proper medical treatment reduce the risk of infecting a child with the virus as well as protect the health of the mother.
Despite knowing the importance of taking certain tests during pregnancy, some still refuse to do so for fear of social stigma in case they are tested positive, thus undermining and risking not only their health but also that of their family members. The social stigma associated with certain diseases like HIV/AIDS, especially in closed societies like Nagas, should be eliminated. The sooner, the better; because only then can we curb it besides helping the people living with HIV/AIDS lead a dignified life. Today, HIV infection has become a manageable health issue. With proper medication, people infected with HIV can live a long and healthy life. A strong social support system is essential to encourage people to take medical tests and help control the spread of the virus.