Saturday, June 22, 2024

Reduced to mere statistics

For years now, we have been hit by tranche after tranche of grim statistics concerning the prevalence of HIV in Nagaland. According to the HIV Sentinel Surveillance (HSS) of 2020, the State was ranked second in the country, only behind Mizoram, in HIV prevalence among the adult population. Nagaland’s HIV prevalence rate of 1.44% among the adult population was seven times the national average of 0.22%. On May 21, Nagaland Aids Control Society (NSACS) officials informed that the current HIV prevalence rate in Nagaland has increased to 1.61% ~ still in second place behind Mizoram in State-wise rankings. The national prevalence rate, in the meanwhile, has remained constant at 0.22%. Meaning, Nagaland’s HIV prevalence rate among the adult population is now eight times the national average. Per NSACS official, Nagaland has also the highest HIV prevalence rate among pregnant women nationwide. In a relatively small sample of 11 months ~ from April last year to March this year ~ 48,777 persons were tested for HIV across Nagaland, with 960 of them returning positive (roughly 2%). Among these, 919 were general clients while 41 were antenatal care (ANC) clients, indicating a significant number of HIV cases among pregnant women. Last year too, Nagaland Health authorities had stated that due to the HIV situation in the State, Nagaland has the highest antenatal care (ANC) prevalence rate in India. And according to the National Family Health Survey, only 16% of the youth (15-24 years of age) has comprehensive knowledge of HIV/AIDS; 45% of youth does not know the source of condom and 37% of sexually active youth are engaged in high-risk sexual behaviour. Keeping these figures in mind, it is worth considering that advocacy groups in Nagaland have been flagging the absence of political support in Nagaland for some years now. In May 2022, while speaking on the sidelines of the International AIDS Candlelight Memorial, one of the activists heading an advocacy group made the statement that as far as Nagaland political leadership is concerned, the issue of HIV and AIDS in the State is not on their list of priorities. As has been pointed out before in these pages, there was a Legislators’ Forum on AIDS formed in 2004. But it was deactivated after 15 years in 2019. According to advocacy groups in the State, the discontinuation of the Forum has affected the fight against HIV and AIDS. Political advocacy, when applied sincerely, can be a powerful tool ~ but this weapon, quite sadly, is no longer available to the PLHIV community in Nagaland. And to think that this Forum, prior to its disbanding, used to preach to the local newspapers to support the fight against HIV and AIDs in the State. Besides lack of political advocacy, the PLHIV community’s cause is further impeded by the prevalence of social stigma. People living with HIV frequently experience negative perceptions and prejudices, which can adversely impact their self-image and cause mental health issues, embarrassment about their status, anxiety about being judged and fear of their health status becoming public. To begin the process of eradicating this stigma, communication is necessary. With so much information available and access to it being so easy, there shouldn’t be any misconceptions regarding this. Talking to each other and imparting accurate information aids in normalising and dispelling these myths and prejudices. With so much data painting a grim picture, it is a shame our Government hasn’t come up with anything resembling a roadmap tailored to the needs of the PLHIV community in Nagaland. All health units should have qualified personnel to conduct HIV testing and provide anti-retroviral treatment (ART) with a special focus on key at-risk populations. Testing will need to penetrate further into the State’s hard-to-reach areas, beyond Dimapur and Kohima, where discrimination runs rampant and health services are meagre. It is also crucial to accompany testing initiatives with community-based awareness programmes that stress the ways in which HIV can and cannot spread. HIV and AIDS is no longer the scourge it once was, but much more must be done to ensure that new infections are curtailed and those infected are able to lead dignified lives.