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Tamil Nadu Checks AIDS Spread

Top on the list of HIV/AIDS most-affected states, Tamil Nadu has managed to keep the numbers of infected from growing, thanks to a unique support programme// .

The Tamilnadu Aids Initiative (TAI) has in the two years of its existence become a model for other states to emulate. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's Avahan scheme funds it.

Since the HIV virus was first discovered in India in 1986 in Tamil Nadu, the state today has about 240,000 people suffering from the infection.

India has almost six million people living with HIV/AIDS, according to a UNAIDS report. The stigma of AIDS is also intense in India.

At the XVI International AIDS Conference in Toronto in 2006, it was the story of Tamil Nadu's Asha and Elango that was highlighted.

Asha, a member of Indian Positive Network, married Elango, each knowing the other's HIV positive status. "For lifelong companionship and support," they explained.

However, like every traditional Indian family, Asha's mother-in-law wanted her to give birth. For this couple, the choice was difficult - the stigma of being a barren woman or that of their HIV status.

Every year, 70,000 to 100,000 HIV-positive women in India become pregnant, says I.S. Gilada of the AIDS Society of India.

Community support has consequently become the key word in AIDS prevention and control, say organisations like TAI.

TAI brought together in December 1,400 people comprising HIV-positive, AIDS affected, sex workers and transvestites on the same platform with healthcare providers, government and NGOs to demonstrate that networking mattered.

On the occasion, people like Meenakshi, HIV-positive and a TAI counsellor and spokesperson for the Tamil Nadu AIDS Control Society (TANSACS) and South Indian AIDS Action Programme, was honoured for helping set up the Society for Positive Mothers Development (SPMD) that has brought discriminated women under its umbrella.

Mothering an intensive and large-scale support programme in 14 high prevalence districts of Tamil Nadu, TAI, administered by the Voluntary Health Services, has in two years managed to reach out to 50,000 male and female sex workers in the state with help from 25 NGOs.

"TAI addresses the vulnerability of the sex workers," says project director and medical professional Laxmi Bai. TAI attempts to address the low self-esteem of the sex worker and the poor socio-economic background.

"Surveys reflect the continued threat of extreme violence faced by the community," she adds.

"My husband suspected me of infidelity... Soon after marriage, one day he poured hot oil on my legs. Then he stopped giving me any money... I had no way to support my baby and drifted into commercial sex work," Sundari, a TAI community leader now, told IANS.

"When I first came to the TAI centre I was afraid, now I am with them. I tell everyone about condom use and talk to other women about TAI services. I lead a life of grace and confidence."

TAI also offers two path-breaking initiatives, "Akshay Patram' and "Vastra Dhanam", food and clothing to destitute women so that they can be prevented from entering sex work

"When I first came to the 'natpukuddam' (TAI-NGO contact centre), I was dirty and in rags... Today I have six pairs of clothing and enough to feed my baby son and me," 18-year-old Sarada from Salem says.

The 32 TAI and other clinics for sexually transmitted diseases reach out to 33,000 people with structured intermitted therapy (SIT) treatment services.

Compared to 60 odd people visiting a TAI clinic a year ago, now each clinic has more than 600 people coming it, say TAI officials.

'TAI Sundaramukhi' and 'Naam' programmes help eliminate fear and promote health-seeking behaviour. TAI helps sex workers, transvestites and HIV positive people with occupationa l alternatives.


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