Housewives now AIDS’ worst victims in Nepal

December 1st, 2010 - 4:15 pm ICT by IANS  

By Sudeshna Sarkar
Kathmandu, Dec 1 (IANS) Though hailed by the UN Wednesday - observed as World AIDS Day - as one of nearly three dozen countries to achieve a significant decline in new HIV infection rates, Nepal however is now witnessing a new alarming trend with housewives accounting for nearly half of the fresh infections.

The rocketing number of housewives contracting HIV/AIDS is linked to the growing migration of Nepali men abroad for jobs, especially to India, from where they bring the disease back home, health experts said.

In 2009, intravenous drug users accounted for the largest group of patients - almost 21 percent - followed by homosexuals and commercial sex workers.

However, now housewives account for nearly 45 percent of new reported cases, says Krishna Kumar Rai, director at Nepal’s National Centre for AIDS and STD Control.

Of the estimated 70,000 people living with HIV and AIDS in Nepal, the centre says 41 percent are migrants returning from India and 21.5 percent their spouses.

In the remote areas where people find it easier to go to India across the border for jobs, business, education and even entertainment, the centre has found large numbers of people contracting HIV/AIDS after unsafe sex with commercial sex workers in India.

In mid- and far-western Nepal, the figures are the highest, with 22 percent reporting sex with prostitutes in India.

Districts in southern Nepal that lie along the highway connecting Nepal with India and seeing a steady traffic of truckers and vehicles from across the border also have the largest incidence of HIV/AIDS.

“There are nearly 3 million Nepali migrant workers in India alone,” says Rai. “Mostly illiterate and ignorant about the consequences of unsafe sex, many of them have sex with sex workers in India, contract HIV/AIDS and infect their spouses, sometimes unknowingly, when they return home.”

While the growth rate of the diseases slowed down to 0.39 percent from 0.49 percent in 2002-03, there’s still no room for complacency as new infections, especially among groups other that those identified as high-risk, are rising, Rai says.

Infections are rising in the general population and nearly 13 new infections are being reported every day.

In many villages of Nepal, AIDS is known as Bombaiya - the disease girls contract after they are lured away by flesh traders to the red-light areas of India’s Mumbai city and sold.

A 10-year communist uprising, persisting political turmoil and lack of funds has prevented Nepal from combating the menace on a war-footing.

“Nepal’s HIV/AIDS efforts continue to be heavily dependent on international assistance, from United Nations agencies to other partners and donors,” says Robert Piper, UN resident and humanitarian coordinator for Nepal.

“This, coupled with Nepal’s governance challenges such as frequent government and staff turnover impacts the country’s ability to chart a consistent, long-term course of action.”

According to Maria Elena G. Filio-Borromeo, UNAIDS country coordinator, though health is a human right, and access to HIV treatment and care falls under that, statistics show that barely nine percent of pregnant women in Nepal are tested for HIV.

She calls it “an abysmal rate, which leads to babies needlessly being born infected when they could easily have been HIV-free if their mothers were granted greater access to testing and treatment”.

(Sudeshna Sarkar can be contacted at sudeshna.s@ians.in)

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