Thursday, December 4, 2008

AIDS Sutra: Untold Stories from India

When you see the word AIDS what comes to mind?

Africa? Disease? Death?
Sex? Drugs? Prostitution?
Mothers? Orphans?

We know so much more today about the etiology of HIV/AIDS than when the epidemic began in the early 1980s. In some parts of the world, the stigma of having AIDS or being HIV positive has begun to weaken. We now have effective (albeit expensive and complex) treatment for the disease, more people are more aware of how the disease is spread, and today we know that if certain conditions are met women who are HIV+ can even give birth to babies unaffected by HIV/AIDS. In this day, in this place, one need not equate AIDS with death.

In India 2.5-3 million people are infected with HIV/AIDS. India has the 3rd largest number of HIV+ people in the world, behind sub-Saharan Africa, and the spread of HIV among women is increasing.
(click here for more facts -- published 2006)

In many other countries, however, there is still great denial about just how widespread are the effects of AIDS. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's Avahan India AIDS Initiative just released a book entitled "AIDS Sutra: Untold Stories from India". It is a collection of essays that brilliantly portrays the lives of people dealing with AIDS and facing its stigma in India. The stories uncover the brutallity and fear that come with social margnizalization, violation of privacy, and discrimination. 

Two authors, Nikita Lalwani and Sonia Faleiro, and an editor from Avahan visited the Harvard School of Public Health today to discuss the book. It was a fantastic event, with about 30 people in attendance. The stories told by the authors were heart wrenching.

Many Harvard affiliates, such as Jay Silverman and Felton Earls, are committed to preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS as well as serving populations who already have the disease. Though, I want to note that the work of my colleagues really seeks to inform the broader picture of how poverty, gender relations, family violence, and sex trafficking perpetuate the spread of HIV/AIDS beyond what service provision in "high risk" communities can provide. It is fascinating work and its implications are great, as the stories "AIDS Sutra" tell. Not only will understanding AIDS in India help those who are currently suffering, but it will provide a basis for future prevention efforts and cultural change that can halt the epidemic, save lives, and restore hope.

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