Pune activists and HIV patients welcomed the Union Cabinet’s decision on Wednesday to make discrimination against persons living with HIV a punishable offence. Clearing amendments to the HIV and AIDS (Prevention and Control) Bill, 2014, the Cabinet has made anti-retroviral treatment (ART) the legal right of such patients. However, activists say, shortage of drugs, non-functional CD4 Count testing machines and patients vanishing mid treatment continue be major hindrances in winning this long battle.
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Vijay Nair, programme officer with India HIV/AIDS alliance, said there still seems a long struggle ahead. “We have to constantly grapple with issues like shortage of commodities, including anti-retroviral treatment medicines. The CD4 machines, which tests the viral load, are at times non-functional and people living with HIV/AIDS have to come twice or thrice a month due to shortage of drugs. They eventually are lost to follow-up,” Nair said. The Vihaan programme caters to people living with HIV by linking them back to the anti-retroviral therapy centres but due not non-availability of the ART, they are sent back and many choose not to take medicines, he explained. At least now the fight will ensure the right to timely medicine, tests to detect infections with TB and hepatitis, Nair added.
The World Health Organisation defines standard anti-retroviral therapy as a combination of anti-retroviral drugs that suppress the HIV virus and stop the disease from progressing. It recommends this therapy for all HIV-positive people. Under the Bill, Central and state governments are obliged to provide for ART and management of opportunistic infections (infections that take advantage of weakness in the immune system and occur frequently). It also prohibits specific acts of discrimination by the state, or any other person, against HIV-positive people, or those living with such people.
According to Dr R Gangakhedkar, Director of National AIDS Research Institute, the Bill was a progressive step. The assurance of provision of free ART along with diagnostic services demonstrates the commitment of the government to the cause of the people living with HIV. Insurance companies will not be able deny insurance to HIV infected individuals and various provisions in the Bill will create a sensitive and enabling environment for persons living with HIV so they will not be discriminated at workplace.
According to Meena Seshu, founder of Sampada Grameen Mahila Sanstha (SANGRAM), an HIV/ AIDS prevention, treatment and support organisation, hailed the Bill but said it has come ten years too late! “However, at least it is a start and we can fight against HIV-related discrimination in the health system,” Seshu said, applauding the role played by Lawyers’ Collective for their work in drafting a Bill with civil society consultations across the country.
Bindumadhav Khire, gay activist and founder of Sampathik trust that works on HIV/AIDS prevention, said that the Bill was a welcome development. “However, like several legislations that remain on paper, we hope issues like lack of funds of HIV-AIDS programme, funds for condoms and drugs are now resolved,” Khire said.