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India AIDS Cases Due to Drop, Spending Up

India is expected this week to release sharply lower AIDS figures but also to announce a six-fold jump in spending to reduce the rate of infection over the next five years, officials say.

Almost three billion dollars, including about a third from foreign donors, will be poured into the next stage of India's HIV/AIDS prevention efforts to be launched in New Delhi on Friday, a top official said.

Previous estimates from India's National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO) have put the HIV caseload in this country of more than one billion people at 5.2 million, while UNAIDS in 2006 estimated 5.7 million cases.

That figure made India the country with the highest number of people infected with HIV in the world.

Indian officials were tightlipped on Saturday about the new numbers.

"There will certainly be a decline but it has to be understood in the correct context, with the correct reading," NACO director Sujatha Rao told AFP.

A senior official with UNAIDS, the UN agency that coordinates the campaign against HIV/AIDS, also told AFP earlier this month that the numbers would likely drop.

"Most probably the figures will be lower than we thought," said Dennis Broun, country director for UNAIDS India.

"When UNAIDS gave the estimate of 5.7 million in India we said it could as low as 3.4 million and as high as nine. That is a very broad range. It might be that it could be even lower."

Reports in local media have put the new estimate at around three to 3.5 million cases.

Officials said the massive drop could be attributed to the fact that the data available this year is better than ever.

"There are more sentinel sites than before so we have a better picture of the epidemic," said Broun, referring to testing sites where samples are taken from members of both low- and high-risk groups, to be used as markers.

"We also h ave a population-based survey, we have a good behavioural surveillance survey, a whole set of surveys has been done in high-presence states among high-risk groups."

More than 1,100 testing sites were used this year as compared to 700 in the past, NACO's epidemiologist Ajay Kumar Khera told AFP.

The north was under-represented before, he said, skewing nationwide estimates towards southern states with higher rates of infection.

And a wide-ranging population health survey tested 100,000 adults randomly between December 2005 and August 2006.

International health organisations have for years worried about the possibility of a South Africa-style AIDS epidemic in India, but the new figures being mentioned would mean a fairly low infection rate.

However organisations that work with high-risk groups such as commercial sex workers, intravenous drug users and homosexual men said their work will go on as before.

"We will continue doing the work we do because that's what we believe is important," said Anjali Gopalan, who heads the Naz Foundation, which works with gay men.

NACO's director said the country would not pull back on its AIDS plans even in the event of a sharply lower case count.

"It's not a curable disease. The mode of transmission is due to reasons over which there is very little human control: private and personal behaviours like sex," said Rao.

"Numbers don't matter. To bring in behaviour change is a tough call so you can't ever relax or it's just a matter of time before it can invade the whole country."


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