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'Tamil Nadu has done the maximum AIDS tests'
A Ganesh Nadar
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December 01, 2007
The fight against Acquired Immuno Deficiency Syndrome is a worldwide effort. In India, till recently considered to be in the eye of the raging storm, the battle has been equally hard-fought. Among the states, Tamil Nadu is known to have the best AIDS control model.

There is a lot to admire in the model on the ground. There are 760 testing and counselling centers across the state. Every district has NGOs working to help HIV+ patients. Every district has care centres for AIDS patients.

While in most states HIV+ patients are counseled to have nutritious food, Tamil Nadu gives them free additional nutrients. Anti-retroviral therapy (ART) drugs are available free in many hospitals in the state.

ART drugs are given for a month so that the patient does not have to go to hospital too often. HIV awareness campaigns are undertaken to target different groups throughout the year.

NGOs receiving government aid and those that don't are brought together on a common platform by the Tamil Nadu AIDS Control Society regularly to share their learning. The government has earmarked areas for individual NGOs, thus they complement each other's efforts and not replicate them.

On the occasion of World AIDS Day, Special Correspondent A Ganesh Nadar spoke to Supriya Sahu, managing director, TANSAC, which is in the forefront of the battle against this killer disease.

What new initiatives are you carrying out for HIV patients?

We are creating awareness about HIV/AIDS with a storybook, the story of Veeralakshmi. This is a story for school children in the ninth standard and eleventh standard in every school in Tamil Nadu. We also cover dropouts through the Arivoli Iyakkam volunteers. < P> We tell them everything about hygiene, body organs, HIV awareness and prevention through Veeralakshmi. After reading this book more people go for HIV testing. We also tell them about our services.

Once we know that a person is HIV+ we take them to the community care centre. They are given counselling about what they should do.

We have special counseling for pregnant positive women. We also provide nutrition.

Till last year we had tested six lakh people. Last year alone we tested more than 10 lakh people. Some 6.5 lakh pregnant women are being tested this year. Last year we found 2,600 pregnant women positive.

Tamil Nadu has tested the maximum number of people.

Some 51,000 HIV+ people are registered with us, 22,000 are taking ART drugs. Three kg of nutrition every month, running 30 community centres, 760 ICTC centres in the state, all connected through the Internet. They give us data in real time.

We are planning to open community centres near the local general hospitals. Now they are far and sometime inaccessible. Out of a budget of Rs 65 crores we spend Rs 5 crores on awareness publicity.

To prevent mother-to-child infection all you need is one dose of medicine. And this is not always done. Why?

The problem is keeping track of the pregnant woman. The medicine has to be given after labour pains start. So we have told our workers in all the 385 blocks of the state to keep track of the pregnant women in their area. We have all the data on all the pregnant women. Her address, her mothers address and in-laws' address.

A Caesarean section is a must for HIV+ pregnant mothers. This is also not done. Why?

This is because this is not government policy. Sometimes the required surgeons are not available. The government leaves it to the discretion of the doctor. The mother's health should also be good enough for surgery.

Many NGOs are said to compete with each other instead of complementing each other.

I know that. We are having a meeting of all concerned NGOs. In two months we will make sure that each NGO is working in a different area.

Many AIDS affected widows do not get pension because of the rule that pension is meant only for women over 35.

This rule can be relaxed by the district collector.

There are 93 widows in Tuticorin that the collector has not helped.

I will speak to the collector personally and get it done.

Is the money you get sufficient for your work?

The idea is not how much money you get but how you use the available money. We find it sufficient.

How important are the NGOs in your fight against AIDS?

The NGO is just one component. We use them to reach the patients. This year we have terminated 18 NGOs for not doing good work. The Positive Peoples Network is a community based programme. The NGOs are more professional.

How many HIV+ patients have you identified in Tamil Nadu, and how many are on ART drugs?

144,000 people have the HIV virus in the state. Some 22,000 people are on ART drugs.

Is it true there are many widows affected by AIDS in the state?

That is a very sensitive issue. In Namakkal alone there are 1000 HIV+ widows. We do not have figures for this. We know how many women are registered in our centres and how many are widows. From that you can get a conservative figure.

How many children have been orphaned because of the HIV virus?

Approximately 1,500 to 2,000. There are no exact figures because, again, this is a sensitive issue.

We cannot ask orphans how their parents died. Secondly, when anyone knows that a child's parents died of AIDS, they boycott the child suspecting that he or she would also be infected.

In your budget how much money is used for looking after the HIV patients?

The entire budget is for them.

Many NGOs use government money to pay salaries and buy vehicles.

They are not allowed to buy vehicles with public money. They can hire vehicles.

Why can't you make it mandatory for NGOs using public money to employ only HIV+ people on the staff?

We are making it mandatory now; in fact we have two programmes we recently initiated. They employ HIV+ patients. A programme to prevent mother-to-child infection where the pregnant mother is HIV+. For this we need out reach workers. Most of them are HIV+.

How many NGOs in Tamil Nadu are funded by you?

We are working with 75 to 80 NGOs.

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