India’s HIV problem only half as bad

When last year’s UNAIDS report came out, India appeared to have overtaken South Africa as the country with the greatest number of HIV/AIDS cases—an incredible 5.7 million. But in new data released Friday, UNAIDS has more than halved that figure, to just 2.5 million Indians living with the virus. AFP The sharp revision has to ...

600738_070706_indiaaids_05.jpg
600738_070706_indiaaids_05.jpg

When last year's UNAIDS report came out, India appeared to have overtaken South Africa as the country with the greatest number of HIV/AIDS cases—an incredible 5.7 million. But in new data released Friday, UNAIDS has more than halved that figure, to just 2.5 million Indians living with the virus.

AFP

The sharp revision has to do with a larger population sample and new methodology for data. Earlier estimates had tested blood from small samples of pregnant women and high-risk groups like prostitutes, and then extrapolated out to the general population. That method is widely accepted, but clearly problematic in determining nationwide infection levels. The new numbers put India behind South Africa, which has at least 5.5 million people living with HIV, and Nigeria, with 2.9 million.

When last year’s UNAIDS report came out, India appeared to have overtaken South Africa as the country with the greatest number of HIV/AIDS cases—an incredible 5.7 million. But in new data released Friday, UNAIDS has more than halved that figure, to just 2.5 million Indians living with the virus.

AFP

The sharp revision has to do with a larger population sample and new methodology for data. Earlier estimates had tested blood from small samples of pregnant women and high-risk groups like prostitutes, and then extrapolated out to the general population. That method is widely accepted, but clearly problematic in determining nationwide infection levels. The new numbers put India behind South Africa, which has at least 5.5 million people living with HIV, and Nigeria, with 2.9 million.

The lower estimate is obviously great news for India. But there’s a risk that Indian health officials, long accused of being in denial about the scale of the problem, might take these new results and use them as evidence that India’s problem is confined to specific areas and high-risk populations. That would be a huge mistake—2.5 million infections is still nothing to sniff at, and studies have shown that the virus spreads rapidly once it gains a foothold in the general population.

So, what should Indian health officials do with these revised statistics? My advice: Breathe a sigh of relief, and then get back to work so that last year’s overestimate never becomes a reality.

Carolyn O'Hara is a senior editor at Foreign Policy.

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