A positive, stigma-free approach to treatment

A clinic was recently launched in Lajpat Nagar to deliver state-of-the-art HIV/AIDS medical care to marginalised communities like LGBTQI, sex workers, drug users

Published - September 17, 2018 01:48 am IST - NEW DELHI

 The newly opened clinic aims to ensure that all patients get access to HIV services. A view of the clinic in Lajpat Nagar.

The newly opened clinic aims to ensure that all patients get access to HIV services. A view of the clinic in Lajpat Nagar.

Harry (name changed), a sex worker who belongs to the men who have sex with men (MSM) community, says he will never forget how doctors and nurses at a government hospital in the city refused to touch his HIV+ wife when she was admitted to deliver their child some years ago.

“They made my sisters deliver the baby. We were discriminated against and humiliated at every step. We were made to feel like maggots had erupted all over our bodies. I would rather die than seek treatment and care at a government hospital,” he said.

Harry and his wife, both HIV+, are among the many people in the Capital who require medical care and support to continue their lives with the disease. India is home to the world’s third largest HIV population after South Africa and Nigeria.

Directions issued by the Health Ministry in 2015 state that anyone who tests positive for HIV is put on antiretroviral therapy (ART). The therapy boosts the CD4 count, which is a measure of the robustness of the body’s immune system and protects against potentially fatal infections (tuberculosis and pneumonia), besides lowering the viral load and the risk of infecting others. ART prevented 1.5 lakh AIDS-related deaths every year between 2007 and 2011.

But what about the people who have opted to turn away from this government aid?

People’s Clinic

“It is for them that the AIDS Healthcare Foundation [AHF], among the largest global organisations working in the area of AIDS, started the People’s Clinic. The clinic focuses on delivering state-of-the-art HIV/AIDS medical care and services to people living with HIV [PLHIV] regardless of their insurance status or ability to pay. Our aim is to ensure that everyone in India is able to access HIV services,” said V. Sam Prasad, country program director of AHF India Cares.

The ART centre operates 12 hours a day and six days a week. “The extended hours will serve the general public and incorporate an evening ‘moonlight testing’ shift, designed to deliver HIV testing to the most marginalised communities, including LGBTQI [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer or Questioning and Intersex], drug users, sex workers and PLHIV,” he said.

“People underestimate the stigma related to HIV/AIDS. The stigma, discrimination and humiliation that people are subjected to after they know that we are sex workers, drug users or from the LGBTQI community is almost 100 times more,” said Anjali (name changed) , a transgender who is HIV+ and the mother of an adopted child. We have had cases where members of the medical community have blatantly implied that we brought AIDS upon ourselves. Who would go back for that kind of treatment? It is as if we are not living in hell already. The People’s Clinic is a boon. We are allowed our space, given support treatment, information about programmes and how to manage our life with HIV, said Anjali, who is associated with AHF.

“I watched with interest when earlier this month the country decriminalised consensual sex between homosexuals by doing away with Section 377. However, the stigma attached to HIV/AIDS will take a long time to go away,” she added.

“Ignorance and fear still cause many medical professionals to not treat us like patients or even human beings,” said Hem Kumar (name changed), a sex worker who is HIV+.

To limit the stigma and help make clients feel more comfortable, the People’s Clinic utilises staff who are part of the LGBTQI community or HIV+ themselves. The staff ensures that clients adhere to treatment through specialised peer-counselling services.

The facility is also the only ART clinic in India to provide first, second and third-line treatment protocols, as well as up to a six-month supply of antiretroviral medicine to clients who are forced to travel long distances to access treatment.

One-stop shop

The clinic aims to offer a safe and stigma-free environment and will be a one-stop shop for a variety of HIV services: prevention, testing and treatment, including ART, counselling, extensive laboratory services, consultations with specialists, a pharmacy and free condoms.

Speaking at the recent inauguration of the clinic in Lajpat Nagar, AHF India brand ambassador, the country’s only openly gay prince and LGBTQI activist Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil, said: “After having done away with Section 377, I am happy to be the AHF ambassador and be a part of the inauguration of the People’s Clinic, which will serve the LGBTQI community with HIV treatment services.”

AHF India launched its first ART clinic in the country in 2007 with the aim to offer free HIV treatment services. The clinic serves around 1,300 clients and aims to serve over 2,000 clients by the end of this year.

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