Times of India 22 June 2001

New Delhi -- A controversy is brewing over the number of AIDS-related deaths in India. The National Aids Control Organisation puts the figure at about 17,000.

But UNAIDS, the joint United Nations programme on HIV/AIDS, said in a fact sheet to be presented at the UN General Assembly special session in New York from June 25 to 27, that there were 5.6 lakh children orphaned due to the disease. In effect, this means more than 11 lakh people have died so far in the country.

The discrepancy came to light during a press conference hosted by UNAIDS to launch a report on HIV/AIDS on Thursday whereupon a furore broke out among journalists.

When questioned on this mismatch in figures, UNAIDS country programme advisor David Miller refused to comment. He said, "The figure in the fact sheet is just an estimate. I do not want to be drawn in the controversy at this stage."

Asked what the source of the estimate was, he said, "I cannot disclose the source. I will have to speak to my colleagues in Geneva about it." Throughout the country, the AIDS surveillance and data collection on AIV/AIDS figures is being handled solely by NACO. NACO chief J V R Prasada Rao said there were no estimates on the number of AIDS orphans in India.

Later in the day, a UNAIDS statement faxed to this newspaper office said the number of orphans given in the fact sheet due to an oversight. It also said NACO and UNAIDS were currently in the process of estimating figures for HIV/AIDS orphans which should finish by the end of this year.

Union health and family welfare minister C P Thakur said the government did not have the resources to provide anti-retroviral drugs for HIV treatment for free. He said, "Very soon to prevent transmission from mother to child, AZT therapy will be a part of our national agenda.''

At the moment, only a few centres in the country give the AZT therapy to prevent an HIV positive pregnant woman from passing the virus on to her newborn child.

According to NACO, about one per cent of pregnant women attending ante-natal clinics in south India were found to be HIV positive, indicating a "generalized epidemic.''

In the rest of the world, as per the UNAIDS report, about 36.1 million people were living with HIV and about 21.8 million people had died of it so far.