Thu, Dec 01, 2005 - Page 5 News List

Truckers spread death across India


Zalisz Ahmed paid US$1 and lost his virginity on the side of the road to one of India's countless young truck-stop prostitutes. He's had unprotected sex with many others since and says he's never heard of AIDS.

Ahmed, 20, is one of an estimated 5 million to 8 million truck drivers who supply the country with everything from apples to air conditioners along long-haul routes that have become deadly HIV highways.

The crowded ribbons crisscross the nation of more than 1 billion people and facilitate one of India's high-risk AIDS groups: men far from home who are always on the move.

Just as in Africa two decades ago, truckers and the sex they buy have helped fuel India's spread of a disease that revolves mainly around sex and injecting drugs. With an estimated 5.1 million people living with AIDS and the virus that causes it, India currently ranks just after South Africa in logging the world's highest number of infections. However, the number of Indian cases per capita remains relatively low, with about 1 in 100 people estimated to be infected in the 15-to-49 age group.

Local truck stops, called dhabas, litter India's highways. They provide warm food and bodies for truckers with no questions asked. The prostitutes are poor and uneducated -- forced to sell themselves for pennies inside trucks, parking lots or even outside in the bushes. Negotiating condom use simply isn't an option for most who work alone instead of in more organized brothels.

Out of the 20-25 truckers tested each month at Babu Jagjivan Ram Memorial Hospital, near the Sanjay Gandhi truck depot in New Delhi, about one-fourth come back positive.

The cycle is often vicious. Out of the handful of positive truckers who come back for follow-up visits, some report still having unprotected sex with prostitutes or sleeping with their unsuspecting wives who sometimes then become pregnant and pass the disease on to their babies.

Outreach workers have for years visited dhabas and depots. Safe sex messages are plastered across billboards and are handed out in brochures at these roadside venues -- they're even painted on the sides of cars that pass big rigs to remind drivers of the risks.

But the message isn't always loud -- or clear -- enough.

The government, trucking industry, unions and the drivers themselves must take responsibility to keep history from repeating itself in India, said S. Sundararaman, an AIDS consultant. He's devoted the past 15 years to working with truckers and has spent many long nights talking safe sex at dhabas that never close.

"In Africa, it was exactly the same because wherever the roads did not take people, the epidemic did not reach there," he said. "The epidemic is invading."

"The truckers actually have a very, very important and crucial role to play in containment," he said. "We have characterized them as a bridge population because they are bridging the population across geography."

No numbers are available for how many truckers may be infected, but in the northeastern state of Assam, a survey found one-quarter tested were HIV-positive, said Denis Broun, country coordinator for UNAIDS in India.

The men are being tempted everywhere by sex. It is the top money maker at some dhabas, and long waits for paperwork between states also fuel boredom relieved by countless women who approach the trucks in parking lots.

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