Emory Report
February 26, 2007
Volume 59, Number 21

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February 26, 2007
HIV/AIDS conference focuses on Indian cultural challenges

BY robin tricoles

Shortly after the first case of HIV/AIDS was diagnosed in India in 1986, too many in India believed that the disease could not happen there because the country’s culture was “different”— and this difference would protect India and its people from the disease. Twenty years hence, 6 million cases later, and to the alarm of many, some in India still believe this to be true, said Sundar Sundararaman, former director of the AIDS Research Foundation of India.

Now the technical adviser to Avahan, a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation initiative aimed at preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS in India, Sundararaman spoke this month at Emory’s South Asian Studies conference, “What’s Indian about HIV/AIDS in India?”

He and 23 other speakers, including anthropologists, political scientists, public health experts, physicians, scientists and writers, from India and the United States, discussed how India’s economy, culture, government and the rest of the world shape the HIV/AIDS epidemic in India.

Vineeta Gupta, founder and director of the Stop HIV/AIDS in India Initiative, is quick to point out that progress is being made in fighting the pandemic. However, she said, the country still must overcome several serious challenges — many unique to India — including high population density, an inadequate public health system, social and cultural values that prevent open and honest discussions of sexual behavior, a low percentage of sex workers who use condoms and a high percentage of intravenous drug users who use dirty or inadequately cleaned needles.

Gupta says one challenge even comes from some health advocates who are not familiar with India’s social and cultural norms and do not adequately appreciate the country’s size and diversity. This unfamiliarity has resulted in misunderstandings, some of which involve seemingly straightforward information such as the proper way to use a condom to prevent the spread of the disease.

“We’re talking about HIV/AIDS, and attacking it means getting into the most intimate parts of people’s lives — religious, social and cultural. India has 28 states, 17 major languages, 844 dialects. It is a multicultural, multireligious society. The [health] programs have to be designed keeping the diversity in mind,” said Gupta.
For more information about the conference, please visit www.asianstudies.emory.edu/sa.