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Year : 2011  |  Volume : 134  |  Issue : 6  |  Page : 739-741

The evolving Indian AIDS epidemic: Hope & challenges of the fourth decade

Infectious Disease Attending & Director of HIV Prevention Research, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Visiting Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School Medical Research, Director, The Fenway Institute, Fenway Health, Boston, Mass 02215, USA

Date of Web Publication6-Feb-2012

Correspondence Address:
Kenneth Mayer
Infectious Disease Attending & Director of HIV Prevention Research, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Visiting Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School Medical Research, Director, The Fenway Institute, Fenway Health, Boston, Mass 02215
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/0971-5916.92618

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How to cite this article:
Mayer K. The evolving Indian AIDS epidemic: Hope & challenges of the fourth decade. Indian J Med Res 2011;134:739-41

How to cite this URL:
Mayer K. The evolving Indian AIDS epidemic: Hope & challenges of the fourth decade. Indian J Med Res [serial online] 2011 [cited 2021 Feb 26];134:739-41. Available from:

When HIV was first identified in Tamil Nadu among female sex workers in 1986, some clinicians and public health officials were concerned that the epidemic could spread rapidly and become an uncontrolled pandemic. The conditions that usually potentiate HIV spread existed in India, including a large mobile population, urbanized transactional sex, income disparities, and gender inequalities. And, indeed, the epidemic has grown in India, with more than 2.5 million people currently living with the virus, a larger national epidemic than all but South Africa and Nigeria. Yet, the epidemic does not appear to have become generalized, the way that it has in several Sub Saharan countries. Instead, HIV appears to be concentrated among individuals who engage in specific high risk activities, including sex work, male homosexual behaviour, and injecting drug use. This does not mean that others are immune, that individuals with lower risk profiles, like spouses and offspring, have not been affected by the epidemic, but the overall Indian general population prevalence is under 0.2 per cent, less than that in the United States and Russia. But because India has such a large population, the absolute size of the epidemic continues to pose challenges for long term successful response. Nonetheless, initiatives by the National AIDS Control Organization, with partners like Avahan, supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, in conjunction with a robust response by clinicians and community-based organizations, seem to have stemmed the tide, for the time being. The cautious note reflects the recognition that until a safe and effective vaccine is available, and/or a cure can remove the virus from infected hosts, success in controlling the epidemic will require continued political will and substantial resources.

Now, more than 30 years since the first reports of the first cases of AIDS in the United States, India and the global community have evidence that currently available tools can arrest, if not end, the epidemic. This past year, HPTN 052 demonstrated that earlier initiation of highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART) at CD4 counts about 350 cells/mm 3 in HIV-infected patients decreased their likelihood of transmitting the virus to partners by 96 per cent [1] . This important finding was buttressed by several trials that found that peri-exposure use of antiretrovirals topically or orally could decrease the likelihood of HIV acquisition by at risk persons [2],[3] . These findings are exciting, supporting the mantra that treatment is prevention, but also raise questions, concerns and challenges. In order to decide who should begin early treatment, or be a candidate for prophylactic medication, individuals need to present for voluntary counselling and testing, or be screened by a knowledgeable health care provider. If all HIV-infected and at risk persons are identified, they then need to receive medication and be clinically monitored, which entails substantial costs. Although the national scale up efforts have been impressive, with more than half a million HIV-infected Indians receiving HAART in the public sector, substantial unmet need remains, which will grow if national guidelines are expanded to incorporate the findings from HPTN 052 and the recent prophylaxis studies.

In this time of unprecedented opportunity and challenge, the current issue of the Indian Journal of Medical Research has assembled a broad array of substantive papers, which together can be construed as the most thorough contemporary academic review of the science of AIDS research in India. The first article by Dr Mehra and colleagues at All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), New Delhi [4] describes the current understanding of HIV immunopathogenesis, followed by discussion by Dr Banerjea and colleagues [5] at National Institute of Immunology (NII), New Delhi, of the diverse genetic profiles of strains circulating in India, and implications for vaccine development. Dr Parekh and colleagues [6] in their article discuss about HIV testing in developing countries. The next series of papers discuss the current principles of optimal clinical care for HIV-infected Indians, led by Dr Kumarasamy and colleagues of YRGCARE, Chennai [7] , discussing considerations regarding the management of antiretroviral therapy. Dr Vajpayee and colleagues from AIIMS [8] discuss current laboratory testing principles, while Dr Balakrishnan and colleagues at YRGCARE [9] discuss newer low cost diagnostic technologies, which may make laboratory monitoring more cost-effective in the future. Dr Sahay and colleagues from National AIDS Research Institute (NARI), Pune [10] discuss the current state-of-the-art regarding optimizing medication adherence, since none of the epidemic control strategies will work if individuals will not take their medications. The next two papers discuss issues related to the most common co-morbid condition associated with HIV, TB co-infection [as reviewed by Dr Swaminathan and group from National Institute of Research in Tuberculosis (NIRT), Chennai [11] ] and the immune reconstitution syndrome that often follows the initiation of HAART in co-infected patients (discussed by Dr Sharma and colleagues at AIIMS [12] ). Two other common problems that HIV-infected patients encounter are subsequently discussed, parasitic infections by Dr Nissapatorn of the University of Malaysia [13] and atherogenic complications by Dr Barbero and colleagues of La Sapienza University in Italy [14] .

The next section of this special issue focuses on challenges for HIV prevention in India, starting with a focus on specific populations: serodiscordant couples (discussed by Dr Solomon and colleagues of YRGCARE [15] ), children (reviewed by Dr Mothi and colleagues from Asha Kirana [16] ), and men who have sex with men (discussed by Dr Thomas and colleagues from the NIRT [17] ). The next two papers, by Dr Ramjee from South Africa [18] and Dr Gupta and colleagues from NII [19] , discuss the promise of topical microbicides in HIV prevention. These papers point to the challenges for the future of epidemic control in India: to assimilate the lessons of previous efforts, to develop programmes that are culturally appropriate for the Indian context, and to maintain the political will that mobilises the resources needed to optimize testing, serostatus knowledge, earlier HAART initiation, engagement in care, and the full array of preventive services. Each of these components will need to be included as part of a comprehensive and successful strategy to control the AIDS epidemic in India. The papers in this issue of IJMR reflect the remarkable progress in AIDS research, clinical care, and prevention over recent years, but implicitly ask the question of whether these findings can be translated into actions that will have a meaningful and longstanding impact on this epidemic.

   References Top

1.Cohen MS, Chen YQ, McCauley M, Gamble T, Hosseinipour MC, Kumarasamy N, et al. Prevention of HIV-1 infection with Early Antiretroviral Therapy. N Engl J Med 2011; 365 : 493-505.  Back to cited text no. 1
2.Abdool Karim Q, Abdool Karim SS, Frohlich JA, Grobler AC, Baxter C, Mansoor LE, et al, for the CAPRISA 004 Trial Group. Effectiveness and safety of tenofovir gel, an antiretroviral microbicide, for the prevention of HIV infection in women. Science 2010; 329 : 1168-74.  Back to cited text no. 2
3.Grant RM, Lama JR, Anderson PL, McMahan V, Liv AY, Vargas L, et al, for the iPrEx study team. Preexposure chemoprophylaxis for HIV prevention in men who have sex with men. N Engl J Med 2010; 363 : 2587-99.  Back to cited text no. 3
4.Sharma S, Kaur G, Mehra N. Genetic correlates influencing immunopathogenesis of HIV infection. Indian J Med Res 2011; 134 : 749-68.  Back to cited text no. 4
5.Neogi U, Sood V, Ronsard L, Singh J, Lata S, Ramachandran VG, et al. Genetic architecture of HIV-1 genes circulating in north India & their functional implications. Indian J Med Res 2011; 134 : 769-78.  Back to cited text no. 5
6.Alemnji G, Nkengasong JN, Parekh BS. HIV testing in developing countries: What is required? Indian J Med Res 2011; 134 : 779-86.  Back to cited text no. 6
7.Kumarasamy N, Patel A, Pujari S. Antiretroviral therapy in Indian setting: When & that to start with, when & what to switch to? Indian J Med Res 2011; 134 : 787-800.  Back to cited text no. 7
8.Vajpayee M, Mohan T. Current practices in laboratory monitoring of HIV infection. Indian J Med Res 2011; 134 : 801-22.  Back to cited text no. 8
9.Balakrishnan P, Iqbal HS, Shanmugham S, Mohanakrishnan J, Solomon SS, Mayer KH, et al. Low-cost assays for monitoring HIV infected individuals in resource-limited settings. Indian J Med Res 2011; 134 : 823-34.  Back to cited text no. 9
10.Sahay S, Reddy KS, Dhayarkar S. Optimizing adherence to antiretroviral therapy. Indian J Med Res 2011; 134 : 835-49.  Back to cited text no. 10
11.Padmapriyadarsini C, Narendran G, Swaminathan S. Diagnosis & treatment of tuberculosis in HIV-infected patients. Indian J Med Res 2011; 134 : 850-65.  Back to cited text no. 11
12.Sharma SK, Soneja M. HIV & immune reconstitution inflammatory syndrome (IRIS). Indian J Med Res 2011; 134 : 866-77.  Back to cited text no. 12
13.Nissapatorn V, Sawangjaroen N. Parasitic infections in HIV infected individuals: Diagnostic & therapeutic challenges. Indian J Med Res 2011; 134 : 878-97.  Back to cited text no. 13
14.Barbaro G, Barbarini G. Human immunodeficiency virus & cardiovascular risk. Indian J Med Res 2011; 134 : 898-903.  Back to cited text no. 14
15.Solomon SS, Solomon S. HIV serodiscorbant relationships in India: Translating science to practice. Indian J Med Res 2011; 134 : 904-11.  Back to cited text no. 15
16.Mothi SN, Karpagam S, Swamy VHT, Mamatha ML, Sarvode SM. Paediatric HIV-trends & challenges. Indian J Med Res 2011; 134 : 912-9.  Back to cited text no. 16
17.Thomas B, Mimiaga MJ, Kumar S, Swaminathan S, Safren SA, Mayer KH. HIV in Indian MSM: Reasons for a concentrated epidemic & strategies for prevention. Indian J Med Res 2011; 134 : 920-9.  Back to cited text no. 17
18.Ramjee G. Microbicides for HIV prevention. Indian J Med Res 2011; 134 : 930-8.  Back to cited text no. 18
19.Nutan, Gupta SK. Microbicides: a new hope for HIV prevention. Indian J Med Res 2011; 134 : 939-49.  Back to cited text no. 19

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