From the Worldwide Faith News archives

Action Called to Prevent Explosive HIV/AIDS Epidemic in Asia

From "Frank Imhoff" <>
Date Wed, 12 Jun 2002 11:13:14 -0500

FEATURE: Indian Lutheran Churches Point to Alarming Situations

CHENNAI, India/GENEVA, 12 June 2002 (LWI) - Indian Prime Minister
Atal Behari Vajpayee recently decried the situation in his country
where around 4 million people, 0.4. - 0.7 per cent of the
population are believed to be HIV positive.

But Dr. Sheila Shyamprasad, coordinator of United Evangelical
Lutheran Church in India (UELCI) HIV/AIDS program says the figure
could be as high as 10 million. She equates the crisis with a time
bomb about to explode.

"This is an alarming situation, because 60 percent of the world's
population lives in Asia. If HIV/AIDS were to sweep India and
China alone this would mean that the homeland of 35 percent of the
world's population would be substantially affected with the
potential to significantly draw in the rest of the world with
enormous implications for all."

Although the national average of people with HIV/AIDS seems small,
some regions and professions significantly surpass the prevalence
level. In Mumbai, for example, 60 per cent of the female sex
workers are HIV-positive. This is one of a number of high-risk
behavior groups that Shyamprasad works with, in a country that she
says "has an abysmally poor track record" of caring for affected
patients, with women patients facing the worst discrimination.

In a manner that appears as a distinct replica of what happens in
Africa, long distance truck drivers and their turn boys in India
are becoming infected and spreading the disease in the course of
their transnational journeys.

This group of people is away from home for weeks, often driving
round trips of 2,000 miles (3,200 km). Shyamprasad says "there is
a common myth among these drivers that heat from the truck engines
gets trapped in their bodies. They believe this heat is released
through sex, hence their justification for extramarital sex

But similar to Africa two decades ago-these drivers pay the price
with as many as 30 percent of them already HIV-positive.

In India, 90 percent of the women remain chaste until marriage and
85 percent know only one sex partner in their lifetime. So
education programs for these groups are unlikely to make a mark on
India's HIV/AIDS statistics, according to Shyamprasad.

The UELCI is also working closely with the "MSM"-males having sex
with males-a very high-risk group of heterosexuals, mainly
married, but selling sex to men for survival. Another HRBG is
"hijra"--eunuchs and transsexuals--a fairly large community of
nearly one million people, already ostracized by society.

UELCI clinics, working closely with affected groups and
individuals, provide counseling, testing and care including
distribution of condoms.

Shyamprasad participated in a recent LWF regional church leaders'
consultation on HIV/AIDS challenges. She agreed with two bishops
from southern Africa who urged the church not to spend energy
fighting those who promote the use of condoms as a last resort to
save the lives of those not abstaining or remaining faithful to
their partners. "If we take a stand that we will not advocate
condoms as a church organization, we will be endangering the lives
of these people, and every life is precious in God's sight, "she

Asked if the church in this way would not be condoning a departure
from age-old traditions, she said "If the church fears controversy
over the issue of condoms, people will continue to die. We must
begin a long battle not only to fight the virus but denial,
stigma, and discrimination. If a decisive step is not taken in
India, because unlike Africa the epidemic is not visible in some
areas, then it will be extremely tough to plan any intervention at

Shyamprasad observed that some churches in areas with low HIV-AIDS
prevalence still act as if infection was alien. The HIV/AIDS
stigma also is built on existing gender, sexuality and racial
prejudices. "Social inequalities in a country like India are very
pronounced and stigma serves to strengthen the inequalities," the
UELCI HIV/AIDS coordinator noted.

Shyamprasad is emphatic that while good work is being done
somewhat sporadically by churches in India and throughout Asia, a
lot more needs to be done for wider, accelerated and intensified
results against the disease. She urges networking with other
churches and secular organizations to effect a lasting impact. She
supports Brazil's model of free anti-retroviral therapy where more
people continue in employment and infection is minimized.
"Churches, while planning their response, should also emphasize
treatment access and lobby with local governments and
international agencies to make drugs available to all."

In India, Christians constitute less than 3 percent of the
population. Concentrated mainly on the east coast, the UELCI
represents more than 1.5 million members drawn from 10 churches,
nine of which are LWF members.

(By LWI correspondent Sam Gonza in Nairobi, Kenya.)

(The LWF is a global communion of Christian churches in the
Lutheran tradition. Founded in 1947 in Lund (Sweden), the LWF now
has 133 member churches in 73 countries representing over 60.5
million of the 64.3 million Lutherans worldwide. The LWF acts on
behalf of its member churches in areas of common interest such as
ecumenical relations, theology, humanitarian assistance, human
rights, communication, and the various aspects of mission and
development work. Its secretariat is located in Geneva,

[Lutheran World Information (LWI) is the information service of
the Lutheran World Federation (LWF). Unless specifically noted,
material presented does not represent positions or opinions of the
LWF or of its various units. Where the dateline of an article
contains the notation (LWI), the material may be freely reproduced
with acknowledgment.]

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