Sunday, December 19, 2004

The Afghan AIDS challenge

With 31 confirmed cases of people living with HIV/AIDS in Afghanistan, one could be forgiven for concluding that the country is comfortably poised in the global campaign against the disease. But Naqibullah Safi, the Director of the National AIDS Control Programme there, knows how fallacious that assumption is and how devastative it can be. With over two decades of violence that has left the government machinery, at best, crippled, he is not taking any chances.

“Even this figure has come to light through blood sample tests. I would say we have a minimum of 700 people living with HIV/AIDS in the country,” Safi said, with a stress on minimum. “It is a politically sensitive subject but we are all human beings. Even homosexuality exists in Afghanistan,” he added. Safi was in town on Saturday to attend a meet on AIDS at the Indian Institute of Health Management Research (IIHMR) and to seal a cooperation contract to set up a public health institute in Kabul.

The AIDS challenge for Afghanistan is further compounded by its dominant position in the international drug trade. About a month back, a UN report had warned that Afghanistan could develop into a “narco-state”, given its two-thirds rise in opium production this year, and added the country was accountable for 87% of the world’s opium. In 2003 the trade was worth $2.8 billion, representing more than 60% of the Afghan gross domestic product.

Safi informed that Kabul has 7,900 heroin addicts, with seven per cent of them being injected drug users. “Again this is a very conservative estimate,” he said. The problem is expected to worsen with the recent increase in drug prices. “As costs go up, people are resorting to the most cost-effective method of inducing drugs and that is injecting,” Safi added. With a crippled health infrastructure, reusing needles in hospitals is also a bother for Afghanistan.

But a beginning has been made. Around 75,000 mullahs, who command an influential position in Afghanistan, will be trained by the end of 2005 to spread awareness about AIDS-related issues and later be monitored. The subject is also now part of a life skill-based curriculum for students beginning from age of 10. Safi’s approach also has lessons for us in India. “Rarely do we see ourselves at risk from HIV/AIDS. If we still look at it as their problem, then it’s our problem,” he said.

One of my reports for Hindustan Times


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