Always someone else's fault

Observations on HIV (2)

As the late Susan Sontag wrote in Aids and Its Metaphors, it is always assumed that disease comes from somewhere else. Americans thought Aids came from Africa. Africans believed the virus was created in a Maryland laboratory. Now the Tory leader, Michael Howard, wants non-EU (ie, dark-skinned) migrants screened for HIV.

When the first Indian case of Aids was diagnosed among sex workers in 1986, commentators in the media and the government attributed the disease to foreigners or Indians who had travel- led abroad. Aids was associated with the promiscuous west. The director general of the Indian Council of Medical Research demanded a legal ban on sex with foreigners and non-resident Indians. Foreign students were screened and the nine (out of an estimated 1,200) found to be HIV-positive were deported. An HIV quarantine law was introduced. It is now mandatory for all foreign nationals who intend to live longer than a year in India to undergo an HIV test.

Have these policies worked? Clearly not. According to UN estimates, India has 5.1 million cases of HIV infection, the highest in the world. Refusal to acknowledge the promiscuous nature of Indians themselves - coupled with poverty, illiteracy, ignorance and the cultural subjugation of women, who have almost no control over their partner's sexual activity or use of condoms - has contributed more than any foreigner to the spread of the disease. So has the refusal of many doctors, in a country where homosexual sex is illegal, to acknowledge the existence of anal sex. Yet the Indian health minister could say in April 2002: "HIV infection came to India from abroad and it still continues."

International research on Aids has found no evidence that screening immigrants for HIV has any effect on local levels of the virus. Such measures have not worked in Canada or Australia. "Tough" measures, such as India's quarantine law, make people less willing to be tested or treated, for fear of ostracism. The way to prevent Aids is to take responsibility for your own actions, not to blame others.