DIBRUGARH, Nov 30 - The rise in the number of HIV-positive cases in the tea gardens of the State, more so in the two districts of Tinsukia and Dibrugarh during 2016-17 has rattled the tea industry and the working community at large.
At least six among the 10 detected are pregnant women in these two districts and they are from plantations. Two offspring born prior to their mother�s HIV-positive detection have been found affected. However, only 1000 have been tested positive while the remaining five have not been diagnosed with the virus, said Pallab Bora, the District Officer of Prevention of Parent to Child Transmission (PPTCT) infection programme.
There is apprehension that due to illiteracy and low-level of health awareness, the number of infected people could rise among the tea garden workers. According to Pallab Bora, the high risk behaviour within tea garden enclaves can�t be ruled out.
�The communities in the tea gardens are most vulnerable to the disease because they lack awareness about it. They also don�t know that the disease can spread through sexual contacts,� said the district officer of the PPTCT programme.
The PPTCT programme, which provides support and comprehensive clinical facilities to prevent the transmission of HIV from mother-to-baby, is being implemented by Assam State AIDS Control Society in collaboration with Emmanuel Hospital Association. The rising prevalence of HIV cases in the plantations came to light only after the recent introduction of HIV screening points and Facility Integrated Counselling and Testing Centres in the tea garden hospitals, Community Health Centres, Primary Health Centres, some sub-centres, Model Hospitals and a few private nursing homes in the two districts.
Assam State AIDS Control Society (ASACS) had launched the HIV screening in the two districts of Upper Assam in April, 2016 as AHANA-PPTCT project to bridge the gap between the actual detection and estimated undetected ones in Assam. The project has now been extended to some 14 districts.
According to Socio Educational Welfare Association (SEWA), a non-profit organisation working with the commercial sex workers in the district, the number of female sex workers (FSW) from the tea garden working communities in the region is also on the rise.
�Unemployment and low wage in the plantation are two major factors for pushing girls towards the unhealthy and highly risky behaviours. Men and women from tea gardens have also begun to move out to cities outside the State for jobs. This situation has also posed a serious threat as a few of them have already been detected to be carriers of the disease,� Polly Borah, Programme Manager, Targeted Intervention Project, SEWA told this correspondent.
Arfan Hussain, Project Director, SEWA told this correspondent that the number of MSM (Man Having Sex with Man) community is also increasing among the tea garden working communities.
The MSM community comprises homosexuals and bisexual men along with transgender people.
�MSM and FSW are considered to be highly risky behaviours that can easily spread the fatal HIV. We are supporting some 660 FSWs and MSMs with medical aid, counselling and rehabilitation. There is also an urgent need to have a �home� to look after the HIV affected children and other affected patients,� he said.
Tinsukia and Dibrugarh districts are reportedly among the top five highly epidemic districts with HIV-positive cases in the State.
The other districts are Kamrup, Cachar and Karimganj. Abidur Rehman, the Counsellor at the Integrated Counselling and Testing Centre, Assam Medical College & Hospitals said that most of the HIV positive cases in the region are due to sexual contacts.
The worried Assam Branch of Indian Tea Association (ABITA) has already begun contemplating on strategies to tackle the situation. Madhurjya Barooah, ABITA Zone 1 secretary said that stress would be laid on HIV screening, awareness and counselling.
�It is unfortunate for the tea industry that the workers are becoming vulnerable to the disease. We will go all out to ensure that entire tea garden population in the region comes under the coverage of HIV screening,� he told this correspondent.