NEW DELHI :
The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) National AIDS Research Institute (NARI) has developed guidelines for intervention, with online dating sites getting popular with HIV vulnerable population groups such as Men Having Sex with Men (MSM) and Female Sex Workers (FSW), who have now shifted to internet to connect with their clients, according to senior ICMR officials.
The aim is to map such population groups and conduct risk behaviour surveys among them. A team of experts from NARI connected with app operators such as Tinder and Instagram to understand how these key population groups operate, and developed the guidelines.
“Over the last 10 years, there has been an upsurge in online dating platforms. An emerging trend is being noticed that vulnerable population groups have shifted from physical sites to online spaces. We can call the “new age shift” because earlier there were congregation points of such people who use drugs, men having sex with men or female sex workers. Such population groups are vulnerable to HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). It is thus necessary to enhance the existing HIV and STD prevention and care programme so that it establishes its reach in virtual platforms as well,“ said Dr Samiran Panda, additional director general, ICMR, who is also the principal investigator of this project.
An estimated 2.319 million people are living with HIV in India, according to the National AIDS Control Organization. The incidence is higher in Mizoram, Nagaland, Manipur, Andhra Pradesh, Meghalaya, Telangana, Karnataka, New Delhi, Maharashtra, Puducherry, Punjab, Goa, and Tamil Nadu.
“We need to know what the size of such key populations groups is and who is using these virtual spaces besides other nuances. However, we do not have as much information and clarity as we have regarding individuals operating through physical spaces. What is the type of vulnerability they have because they are operating through virtual spaces? We have to do mapping and size estimation and then establish outreach. That is why these guidelines are very important. They will come out very soon in the public domain. The importance of these guidelines is responding to the new age shift,“ Panda said.
“The World Health Organization’s country office in India has supported NARI in developing these guidelines and this is going to be a great boost to the programme. Unless we start such interventions, we will be far off from reaching the goal of HIV elimination by 2030 in India,“ said Dr Amrita Rao, a scientist from ICMR-NARI who is one of the core investigators of this project.
To reach out to the population “at risk” for HIV and STIs, the government has set up more than 34,000 testing centers.
As many as 1,900 anti-retroviral treatment centres and 1,400 targeted interventions are running in the country are providing services to such vulnerable population groups.
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