Tue Nov 28, 2006
By Rupam Jain Nair
AHMEDABAD (Reuters) - Eighteen impoverished Indians with AIDS died in one district in western India in the last two months because the nearest state supply of free drugs is hundreds of kilometers away, an HIV advocacy group said on Tuesday.
"The absence of a regular supply of anti-retroviral (ARV) drugs has claimed 18 lives in the past 60 days," said Umashanker Pandey of the Kutch Network of Positive People in Gujarat state.
Pandey told Reuters the deaths highlighted the failure of India to reach much of its HIV-infected population, the majority of whom live in rural and small-town India.
The 18 patients had been either too poor or too sick to make the journey every month on an overnight train to Ahmedabad, the state's main city, to receive treatment and pick up their government-supplied drugs, he said.
D. M. Saxena, the head of the State AIDS Control Society, confirmed that 18 people with AIDS had recently died in and around the large town of Bhuj, and said he was looking into the matter.
But Sujatha Rao, head of India's National AIDS Control Organization, said she had seen no evidence that the deaths were caused by AIDS.
"I can't understand why an overnight train journey would deter them," she said.
She added that she would be happy to authorize the opening of a drugs-dispensing AIDS center closer to Bhuj if the state health department thought it necessary.
India is home to an estimated 5.7 million people with HIV according to the United Nations, the largest caseload in the world.
Amarjeet Singh, Gujarat's health secretary, said he had sent a team of medical experts to Bhuj to investigate the deaths.
"We are meeting the HIV-positive people and will set up a medical center for them in Bhuj," he said.
India continues to fall far short of its own target of giving ARV drugs to 100,000 AIDS patients by 2005 -- it still only reaches 47,300 of the estimated 500,000 to 750,000 people who need the drugs.
NACO considers Gujarat to be a "moderate prevalence" state. It estimates there are 102,684 people with the virus, but only 7,599 cases have ever been reported in the state as of October this year.
The Gujarat Network of Positive People says a true estimate is closer to 200,000 infected people.