Thursday, 13 October 2011

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Tamil Nadu rolls out HIV-testing labs-on-wheels

The state with one of the most aggressive HIV/AIDS testing programmes launches an initiative to take testing and counselling facilities to areas where access has previously been poor. Tribal populations in remote areas, migrant and daily wage labourers, women and residents of urban slums are key targets of this service.

The first mobile testing vans for HIV/AIDS in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu have hit the road ahead of World AIDS Day on December 1. Ten pink-topped vans with testing facilities were flagged off from Chennai’s famous Marina beach area, on November 22, to take the fight against HIV/AIDS to the most inaccessible areas of Tamil Nadu.

The initiative, run by the Tamil Nadu AIDS Control Society (TANSACS) and supported by the International Red Cross Society seeks to ensure that people have optimum access to voluntary HIV testing and counselling services. The vans will also double up as vehicles to spread HIV/AIDS awareness.

Besides diagnostic equipment, each van that costs around Rs 300,000, will have on board a technician and a counsellor; the district collector will chart out its route.

"I think HIV is spreading not because of people who know their HIV status, but because of those who don’t know their HIV status. If the vehicles are here for some time, even I would like to get tested if it is done for free," says Kanan, a peanut vendor on the beach, as he watches the vans roll out on their mission.

Ramapandian, president of the Tamil Nadu Network of Positive People, agrees that early diagnosis of HIV helps people access the available treatment as soon as possible.

The first vans, or mobile laboratories, will ply in the rural areas of Dharmapuri, Namakkal, Salem, Coimbatore, the Nilgiris, Dindigul, Krishnagiri and Thiruvanamalai districts, especially in tribal areas where laboratory access is poor.

One van will move through the streets of Chennai and another will offer easy access to testing services in the bustling temple town of Madurai. The government hopes that urban slums will also benefit from the doorstep services.

Given their flexibility of time and location it is hoped that their services will be accessed by migrant labourers and daily wage earners. "It is indeed true that testing is best not only for HIV but for any infection," says Selvalaxmi from the Chennai Network of Positive People. "These mobile vans will reduce fear among the general public to get tested for HIV; this will also motivate people to get themselves tested. It will be very useful for the tribal population, which still isn’t aware of HIV or AIDS."

Women are another vulnerable section that the mobile testing vans hope to reach out to. Kumudha, a member of the Positive Women’s Network, says: "This is a great opportunity, especially for women in rural and remote areas, to get themselves tested for HIV and also learn more about HIV. Though there are so many ICTCs (integrated counselling and testing centres available all over the state), due to various reasons, including fear and lack of empowerment, women are not able to access these centres. These vans will bring about a remarkable change in the lives of women."

In the past two years, Tamil Nadu has made significant progress in the fight against the virus. Prevalence of HIV/AIDS in the state has fallen to 0.3% in 2007; Tamil Nadu once topped the list of states in India with the maximum number of affected people.

Tamil Nadu has achieved this in large part by aggressively stepping up awareness and testing facilities for HIV/AIDS. (TANSACS) data shows that by September this year, about 1.5 million people had taken the HIV test.

TANSACS has already set up 760 testing labs. However, the vans are the first batch of mobile testing laboratories for HIV/AIDS care in the state, where the virus was first discovered in India in 1986. "The mobile vans are an addition and will take our AIDS care campaign to the remotest areas," says Supriya Sahu, TANSACS project director.

"Testing and counselling services have now been made available up to block primary health centres (PHCs). ICTCs are also located in all medical colleges and district hospitals."

Source: Hindustan Times, November 23, 2007
              IANS, November 23, 2007