'Shocking' number got HIV from transfusions

Students with faces painted with HIV/Aids awareness messages at the International Aids Candlelight Memorial, in Chandigarh, India, last month.
Students with faces painted with HIV/Aids awareness messages at the International Aids Candlelight Memorial, in Chandigarh, India, last month.PHOTO: REUTERS

Health activists express concern at figure of 2,234 cases in Indian hospitals in 17 months

A government body has revealed that at least 2,234 people contracted HIV following blood transfusions in various hospitals across India over 17 months, triggering concern among health activists.

In response to a petition filed by activist Chetan Kothari under the Right to Information Act, the National Aids Control Organisation (Naco) revealed that the state of Uttar Pradesh had the most cases, with 361. It is one of India's poorest states and has the largest population.

Gujarat was second with 292 cases, Maharashtra third with 276 and Delhi, India's capital, had the fourth highest number of cases with 264.

Mr Kothari said the findings were "shocking" even as an official at Naco, which is under the health ministry, maintained the situation was not as alarming as the statistics suggested.

"We have seen the trends (for the last 15 years) which are not alarming," Dr Shobini Rajan, assistant director-general at Naco, told The Straits Times.

"Out of the people who have tested positive, the total infected by blood transfusions over the last five years is between 1,000 and 2,500. It is not rampant or a public health issue."

India has 2.1 million in its population of 1.25 billion infected with HIV, the third largest incidence of HIV in the world after South Africa and Nigeria.

According to Naco, which had a meeting on the issue on Tuesday, infections through blood transfusions have actually decreased, from 15 per cent in the 1990s to 1 per cent at present.

India has had a successful programme to contain HIV/Aids, with the number of new cases declining by more than 20 per cent in the decade that ended last year.

Still, the country has more than 2.1 million in a population of 1.25 billion people infected with HIV, the third largest incidence of the virus in the world after South Africa and Nigeria. Bureaucratic delays and red tape, activists warned, routinely hit government prevention programmes.

Mr Kothari also noted that blood testing was not always carried out even though hospitals are legally required to test blood for a host of infectious diseases, including HIV.

"The HIV testing kit costs 1,200 rupees (S$24.50). Not everybody can afford it," he said.

"Even an HIV testing machine is costly. In Mumbai, only three major hospitals have the machine. There is a need for even the smallest blood bank to have enough equipment to test properly. This is a serious and very sensitive issue," he added.

Other activists also said that they were worried by the numbers, noting that the government needed to take steps including increasing the focus on HIV/Aids programmes. The government cut funding for them by 20 per cent last year but restored it after much criticism.

"I was surprised by the number of people infected through blood transfusions," said Mr Paul Lhungdim, project coordinator of the Delhi Network of People Living with HIV/Aids.

"The government and political parties should make funding for testing blood transfusions a priority. They think Swach Bharat (the clean India campaign) is sexier than giving HIV funding."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 02, 2016, with the headline ''Shocking' number got HIV from transfusions'. Print Edition | Subscribe