In an interview to The New York Times, the new health minister, Harsh Vardhan, questioned the emphasis placed by the National AIDS Control Organisation (Naco), responsible for running HIV prevention programmes, on the use of condoms. Harsh Vardhan, himself an ear, nose, throat specialist, reportedly advocated that citizens should cultivate strong moral fibre to guard against contracting HIV.
Naco’s thrust on condoms, he argued, could be construed as an endorsement of “any kind of illicit sexual relationship”. He is also keen that the campaign embrace “our culture”, “promoting the integrity of the sexual relationship between husband and wife”. The good doctor, however, may only be taking a leaf from the book of his gaffe-prone predecessor.
In his time as the nation’s top public health official, Ghulam Nabi Azad betrayed a preoccupation with population control, claiming in 2009 that working television sets would distract enough Indians from the task of procreation to reduce population growth by 80 per cent. On the birth of the seven billionth baby in 2011, he sounded a sour note, complaining that it was an occasion for worry, not celebration. Azad said at an HIV/AIDS conference that same year that better sex education could help counter the “unnatural… disease of men having sex with men”.
Whether Harsh Vardhan’s remarks stemmed from old-fashioned bigotry and prejudice or worse, an ignorance of the importance of promoting safe sexual practices in reducing the prevalence of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases — indeed, according to Naco over 85 per cent of HIV/AIDS cases are due to unprotected sex — his assessment of what constitutes an effective public health campaign could arguably raise some apprehensions about his own fitness for leading the charge against the scourge.
According to the UN, though the rate of HIV infection in India has halved in the last decade, the country still has 2.1 million people with HIV, the third largest in the world. This population is primarily comprised of high-risk groups, including sex workers, drug users and gay men. With comments such as these, the health minister ill-serves those who most need him to stand up for them.