The Union Health Minister, Dr Harsh Vardhan has said that he would like the government to focus more on promoting the ‘integrity of the sexual relationship between husband and wife’, which was part of Indian culture, to create awareness about AIDS and HIV rather than promote usage of condoms. In an interview to The New York Times, he said that promoting the use of condoms ‘sends the wrong message that you can have any kind of illicit sexual relationship, but as long as you’re using a condom, it’s fine’ and that “The thrust of the AIDS campaign should not only be on the use of condoms.”
The National AIDS Control Organization (NACO) in India has traditionally focused on promoting usage of condoms among high-risk groups. Its’ vision statement highlights, amongst other things, the need to have an AIDS control programme that is ‘firmly rooted in evidence-based planning’. Worldwide evidence indicates, acknowledged by both the WHO and UNAIDS, that the male condom is the single most efficient available technology to reduce the sexual transmission of HIV.
AIDS outreach in India has been extensively supported by the Government and UN bodies, and a report by the NACO claimed that India had recorded a 57 percent drop in the number of new HIV infections in the decade from 2000 to 2011. India still has the third largest number of HIV infected people in the world at 2.1 million.
V.K. Subburaj, the head of NACO, said that the promotion of condoms among high-risk groups was unlikely to change. “For the vulnerable groups, we cannot tell them about morals,” he told The New York Times. But he suggested that NACO might change its strategy for the general population, who would be told to “be faithful”.
While the NACO aims to promote responsible sexual behaviour, it remains to be seen how the new moral yardstick envisioned by Dr Vardhan shapes government response and policy decisions on AIDS awareness and control in India.