Taxi drivers in Aizawl will now double up as HIV/AIDS counsellors — distributing free condoms and pamphlets with HIV prevention messages — to raise awareness about the disease in Mizoram, which accounts for the highest HIV/AIDS prevalence rate in the country.
A fleet of 500 bike and car taxis have been selected to form the ‘Love Brigade’, as part of a campaign launched by the Mizoram State AIDS Control Society (MSACS) in collaboration with the Delhi-based AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) and Taxi Association, Mizoram in Aizawl on Tuesday to mark World AIDS Day.
According to Joint Director, MCAS, Zuiliani Hrahsel, the initiative aims at making condoms more accessible. “We are a small state, with a population of approximately 11 lakh,” she said, “Everyone knows everyone, and many may find it awkward to walk into a chemist shop and buy a pack of condoms. What we are trying to do is increase public accessibility to condoms in a bid to promote safe sex.”
The love brigade drivers will don red jackets so passengers can distinguish them from other drivers. “The back pocket of the front seat will have a little flap — that is where we will keep the condoms, known as ‘love condoms’. Anyone can pick it up,” said Hrahsel, adding that the Love Brigade will also be trained in HIV/AIDS counselling and give out the details of free HIV testing initiatives of MSACS.
According to a statement from AHF, Mizoram’s HIV prevalence amongst the adult population (between 15 and 49 years) was at 2.04 per cent—almost ten times higher than the national HIV prevalence (0.22 per cent). The state’s annual new HIV infection rate is at 1.32 per cent, which is twenty times higher than the national average of 0.07 per cent.
However, authorities said that with Covid-19, the focus on HIV had taken a backseat this year. “Yes, it is true that at least for some time the world has forgotten the HIV pandemic during the COVID-19. The fight against HIV is not yet over and we need to focus our energies back on HIV Prevention, Care, Support and treatment services,” said Mizoram, Health & Family Welfare minister, Dr R Lalthangliana, speaking at the launch of the initiative in Aizawl.
A dedicated condom promotion campaign in Mizoram began in 2017. “We have hoardings, stickers on safe sex practices plastered all over Mizoram,” said Hrahsel, “Love condoms — with special packaging — are available in boxes in restaurants, public toilets and cafes. This year, we take it a level up by launching the Love Brigade taxis.”