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NGOs to churches: All vow to beat HIV/AIDS in this Manipur district

For two government doctors in a remote Manipur district to have quit their jobs and dedicated themselves towards fighting HIV/AIDS in a bid to save a generation, clearly means that the rise in the number of HIV cases was indeed alarming.

When B Langhkam and V Muana in Manipur's Churachandpur district decided to focus on fighting AIDS, their first step was to apprise the youth of ways to keep the dreaded disease at bay.

AIDS patients practice meditation at a rehabilitation centre in Imphal. Reuters

According to data available on the Manipur State AIDS Control Society (MACS) website, the state hardly accounts for two percent of India's population but alarmingly, has eight percent of the total national AIDS-infected population.

The enormity of the situation can be gauged by the fact that out of 2,42,969 blood samples screened up to March 2008, 29,147 tested HIV+, the state AIDS control society said. Among the samples testing positive, 7,513 were women.

In February 1995, the two doctors came under the umbrella of SHALOM (Society for HIV/AIDS and Lifeline Operation in Manipur), which was initially funded by AusAID for three years. The project received $230,000 from the Australian agency and primarily focussed on "harm reduction" to fight the dual menace of drug addiction and HIV/AIDS. It pioneered the needle and syringe exchange programme in the state.

As Churachandpur shares its border with Myanmar, heroin was cheap and easily available which led to a steep rise in the number of injecting drug users (IDU). Due to its proximity to the dreaded Golden Triangle, Manipuri girls were forced into prostitution in neighbouring countries like Myanmar and Thailand and in turn became carriers of the deadly virus due to unprotected sex.

Today, under the stewardship of Muana's daughter, Lalruatpuii Pachuau, SHALOM has become a 50-member organisation with a clear objective to wipe out HIV/AIDS from the district. The NGO receives international funding from philanthropic organisations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation apart from government support.

"There have been a lot of changes over the years. When we first started working, the HIV prevalence among the IDU was very, very high. Today we have reached a point where the numbers are much lower and the changed environment allows them to access our services," Lalruatpuii told Firstpost from Churachandpur.

"My father and his friend were affected by seeing the plight of our community in Churachandpur. It was a new field and they knew they had to do something about it," the  SHALOM chief added.

Elaborating on the role of SHALOM, Lalruatpuii said her NGO stressed on HIV prevention and taking medical care of those already infected. "We provide out-patient and in-patient services apart from running community centres," she said.

Talking about the social stigma attached to HIV/AIDS in the Manipuri society, Lalruatpuii said: "It has changed a lot. Many philanthrophic organisations including the church have come forward now to contribute in whatever way they can. Many HIV+ also come out in the open and share their experiences," she said.

Lalruatpuii felt SHALOM should have approached the spouses of the IDU to prevent the spread of the disease. "Our focus was more on their husbands, who were the infected ones. We should have also spoken to the wives about preventive measures," she said.

The geographical location of the district also plays a complex role in the situation. "We do have a problem of HIV/AIDS refugees coming from the Myanmar side of the border trying to cross over," the SHALOM head said.

Lalruatpuii, however, was not too keen on elaborating on the role of militants as possible carriers of the virus. "I have very little knowledge about that," she said.

The SHALOM boss felt that the IDU population would come down in coming years but concerns remain. "We are seeing an increase in the sexual route of transmission. That has to be addressed very soon," Lalruatpuii said.

Listen to SHALOM chairperson Lalruatpuii Pachuau sharing her experiences with Firstpost