Anti-AIDS medicine project likely to take off at Sonagachi

KOLKATA: Asia's largest red light zone, Sonagachi is likely to be the first among such areas in the country to roll out an experimental project under which sex-workers will be administered medicine to prevent HIV infection. 

Under the project 'Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis' (PrEP), regular medicine would be given to an HIV-negative sex worker engaged in sex with an HIV-positive person, a senior official of an NGO working for the welfare of sex-workers said. 

The medicine will prevent a sex-worker from getting infected by HIV virus, principal of Sonagachi Research and Training Institute (SRTI), the NGO, Samarjit Jana told PTI. 

The project, to be financed by the Melinda Gates Foundation, has been submitted to the Union Ministry of Health and is waiting for a nod from the National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO). 

"We have submitted the report to the Union Health Ministry, which has forwarded it to the NACO. We are waiting for a nod from the NACO within the next few months," Jana said. 

The SRTI is an arm of the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC), a forum of 1,30,000 sex-workers in West Bengal. 

Jana said that use of condoms and taking PrEP medicine everyday will offer double protection against HIV infection. 

"We all know that use of condoms during sex has brought down HIV prevalence, but often customers do not use condoms. In such cases and in cases of defective condoms, the virus can attack a person. This can be prevented by regular intake of such a medicine," he explained. MORE PTI PNT MD AMD AAR 01011305 NNNN 

The national programme officer at NACO, B B Rewari, agrees that PrEP has the potential to bring down risk factors by 60-70 per cent among the high risk groups such as sex-workers. 

Rewari said, "We have received project report from Durbar just a few days back. We are looking into it. The PrEP is yet to be introduced in India. If the project is allowed, Sonagachi will be first to implement it." 

However, some factors need to be considered, such as its acceptability in society, especially among sex-workers, Rewari pointed out, saying that the medicinal treatment along with use of condoms had been very successful abroad in preventing HIV infection. 

President of AIDS Society of India, IS Gilada, welcomed the move and said it would help bring down AIDS prevalence in the country. 

"I have been a staunch advocate of PrEP and I feel it is a welcome move. It will help bring down AIDS prevalence. I have also spoken in favour of Postexposure Prophylaxis which can kill the virus within a few hours of a person getting infected," he said. 

Gilada said that the medicine was very useful in rape cases and in cases where a person unknowingly had sex with an HIV-affected person. 

According to Jana, the project will be a two-year programme to be implemented after sorting out HIV-negative sex-workers at Sonagachi. 

"First, of the nearly 20,000 sex-workers at Sonagachi, we will select 1,000 sex-workers who do not have HIV virus. A counselling class will be undertaken for them to inform them of the efficacy of PrEP," he said. 

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