This Diwali brings in cheer for over two lakh people living with HIV who have been granted free travel service in state transport buses to anti-retroviral treatment (ART) centres. A demand that was mooted 10 years ago finally saw the go ahead last month when the state Transport Minister, Diwakar Raote, issued an order to the effect.
In the order issued on October 9, the state transport department has announced free and concessional travel service in state transport buses for various categories, including patients with TB, leprosy, sickle cell anaemia, haemophilia and cancer. For people living with HIV, the state government has allowed free travel service in ST buses. However, the distance has been restricted to 50 kms.
At the Network of People living with HIV in Maharashtra, which has 2.7 lakh registered people with their Vihaan care and support project, the free travel service has come as a great relief. Shabana Patel, president of the network pointed out that HIV households struggle and cope with risks by reducing consumption on essential items like food, borrow heavily from moneylenders and are also dependent on other family members or NGOs. “For nearly ten years we have been pursuing our demand for free travel to ART centres as they get lost to follow up (LFU) and do not adhere to treatment,” Patel said.
Nishtha Dubey, programme manager at Network of People Living with HIV in Maharashtra which partners with the Vihaan consortium — a national initiative — and has set up 46 care and support centres in the state, said this order will give a huge boost to persons who are lost to follow up for treatment of HIV.
“There is a list of 34,209 persons with HIV who are lost to follow up. Among the main reasons why they do not adhere to treatment are either they have died or then migrated to other places,” Dubey said.
The Vihaan consortium is led by Alliance India and partners with state level networks of people living with HIV to deliver care and support services. The focus is to increase treatment adherence, reduce stigma and and improve the quality of life of people living with HIV. Working in close coordination with Maharashtra State AIDS Control Society, the teams with Vihaan then work to find, counsel and convince them to start treatment. Dedicated efforts by a team of counselors and outreach workers has helped bring back 4147 persons who were lost to follow up to ART centres, Dubey said. According to Vinod Jhamble, Project Coordinator with Vihaan, being allotted free bus travel will also encourage them to come once a month to the ART centre and take their medicines.
Last year in May, the Union health ministry had intensified its efforts to identify all those estimated to be infected with HIV. It was decided to ‘treat all’ persons living with HIV regardless of their CD 4 cell count ( a test that measures the strength of one’s immune system). In Maharashtra over 25,000 more HIV positive persons were placed on ART treatment. Efforts are underway to place more persons and hence coordination with NGOs and networks help us locate them, officials at MSACS said.