India’s new health minister, Dr. Harsh Vardhan, is reported as saying that he would like to see a change in the way that the government promotes awareness of AIDS and HIV, with more emphasis on “promoting the integrity of the sexual relationship between husband and wife,” which he said was “part of our culture.”
In a telephone interview last week with the New York Times, Vardhan said that “the thrust of the AIDS campaign should not only be on the use of condoms and this 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.”
In reality, people do step outside marriage, Anjali Goplan told The New York Times, “Therefore you have to deal with it and ensure that they do not bring back infection,” she said. Gopalan is the founder of the Naz Foundation India, which helps people living with HIV/AIDS and spreads awareness of the disease. “This whole debate about what is moral in our culture, I think we really need to look at it.What culture are we talking about?” The Naz Foundation has also lobbied against the reinstatement of Article 377, the law criminalising homosexuality.
The “moral fabric” in the country is “becoming very thin” said Dr. V.K. Subburaj, the Secretary for AIDS Control, the most senior official with direct responsibility for HIV. He added that his agency would make changes to the information, education and communication strategy and increase its activities, particularly for the general population.“We will tell them, ‘Be faithful’,” he said. However, Dr Subburaj said that condom promotion was not directed at the general public but rather at high-risk groups, like most of the agency’s activities. “The minister thought that we were promoting illegal activities through condoms. For the vulnerable groups, we cannot tell them about morals,” he added.
The Hindustan Times took a predictably critical line in an editorial, “it is surprising that Union health minister Harsh Vardhan — a doctor himself — had odd remarks on HIV and ways to prevent the disease from spreading”. The HT is a left-of-centre paper that has little affection for India’s new BJP-led government.
“It would appear that he has forgotten that the aggressive promotion of condoms is one reason why the seropositivity rate in India has fallen and it is now behind Nigeria and South Africa in the number of people living with HIV/AIDS.” The HT says although, in fact, India’s prevalence rates have never been anything like those in South Africa and have always been lower than, for example, the United States. The HT continues, “abstinence and cultural values have not proved any protection against infection as studies have shown. Women are at particular risk as even if they are monogamous, there is no guarantee that their husbands won’t pick up the infection elsewhere and pass it on to them. Such remarks coming from the person who is in charge of health in India are worrying … A similar remark made by a former South African president set the country’s anti-HIV programme back considerably. Dr. Vardhan’s ill-thought-out remarks similarly have the potential to reverse the gains made against the disease.”
The Times of India, which is normally more supportive of the BJP, says that Dr Vardhan is staying true to BJP values. The ToI says “the emphasis on Indian culture is in keeping with the BJP’s emphasis on highlighting what it calls positive aspects of Indian culture to combat lifestyle problems caused by excessive or so called reckless adoption of western culture”.
There is more criticism coming out by the hour on other news and social media sites. Shruti Dhapola from First Post writes,”condoms are the cheapest, most effective tool for safe sex. It is and ought to be promoted by every health professional to combat AIDS, unsafe abortions, and every kind of STD — unless, of course, you are India’s new health minister Dr Harsh Vardhan”.
A day after these reports said the minister spoke saying he was “disappointed” over the way his statement was “distorted” by a section of the media. “Through misleading headlines, an impression is sought to be created that I have misgivings about the efficacy of condoms or that I have a moral problem with condoms” .He also said the stand taken by him on being loyal to one’s partner has been adopted by several countries in their fight against AIDS.
Dr Vardhan is not the first Union health minister to get into trouble over HIV. In 2011, his predecessor appeared to tell an HIV seminar that homosexuality was a disease, and that gay sex was unnatural. He soon retracted the remarks.