Knocking on slum doors for AIDS awareness, testing (Feature)

December 10th, 2008 - 11:35 am ICT by IANS  

New Delhi, Dec 10 (IANS) The narrow alleyways that serve as kitchens, playgrounds and open drains all at once are unusually quiet. Gulping down fears, a few expectant mothers and adolescents walk in and out of the single room HIV-AIDS testing centre set up at a small gurdwara in the heart of a shanty in east Delhi.A few young children totter around the area, wanting to peek into the makeshift ward. Other women maintain a palatable distance, sitting on cots and gossiping about neighbours entering the centre. This was the scene in the Kalyanpuri area where NGO Soubhagya organised an AIDS testing and awareness camp last week along with the AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF).

“Tests should be carried out here - in areas most susceptible, not in large clinics where only the rich can access them. These people living in unhygienic conditions, where there is a migrant population … they need to be counselled and shown the advantage of getting tested,” said Amod Dalela, chief operative officer of Soubhagya.

Volunteers of the centre, wearing red T-shirts and campaign-specific caps, walk around the colony with a mission. They enter houses and try to convince women, adolescents and anyone who listens to come to the centre and get tested.

“Testing is free. When a person comes in, we first give them a brief about HIV and AIDS and how the virus actually spreads. We ensure they understand every aspect from condom usage to blood transfusion - to try to remove the myths associated with HIV and its transmission. People here have a very vague idea,” said a volunteer at the centre.

“We also explain how their anonymity is a priority,” she added.

The person is then taken to a corner of the room partitioned by a loosely hung bed sheet, where another volunteer takes a blood sample and fills out a general form with clinical information.

“The test results come from a special clinic in south Delhi. In case someone is infected, we give them all precautionary information, even free medicines and other treatment in some cases. The patient is again counselled and care is taken to inform him that the disease is not fatal and can be dealt with with adequate precaution and medicine,” said Kamini, Soubhagya’s project director.

A 35-year old pregnant woman, who had been unwell for some time, bolstered up courage to enter the testing centre with her three kids in tow.

For many days, two volunteers had been doing the rounds in her neighbourhood.

“A girl came to me this morning and explained that the infection could have reached me for no fault of my own - through unclean needles or unhygienic conditions when I gave birth. So I decided to come here, because I don’t want my ignorance to affect the future of my children,” she said.

This testing centre is one of the two set up in the area by Soubhagya in partnership with AHF. The foundation based in Los Angeles had aimed at completing 50,000 tests in India and one million globally by Dec 7 under the ‘One Million HIV Tests’ campaign.

Five centres in the Narela Industrial Area, one each in Shastri Park, Paschim Vihar, Geeta Colony and Nizamuddin, two in Trilokpuri and Seemapuri, and one in Jesus Mary College were set up in partnership with other NGOs to take mobile testing “directly to the people”.

According to Dalela, about 100-150 people turned up at the testing centres set up in these localities for around 10 days.

AHF had kicked off its mobile HIV testing initiative (Ehsas) in India in March and has conducted tests in various cities.

Said Chinkholal Thangsing, Asia Pacific bureau chief of AHF: “We can no longer wait for people to take themselves to inaccessible voluntary, counselling and testing (VCT) centres. We have to find ways to bring testing to the people - where they are, where they work and where they live.

“We must scale up testing and knock down the barriers that are allowing preventable virus transmissions and deaths.”

The number of AIDS cases in New Delhi rose from 498 in 2000 to 5,082 in 2007, presenting a serious challenge, according to AHF.

“With 33 million people living with HIV/AIDS in India and only three million on treatment, there is a global crisis that could not be ignored,” Dalela said.

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