Truckers ride Aids highway up and down India

With a mug of fermented rice beer and a plate of grilled garlic chicken, burly trucker Parminder Singh relaxes after a hard day of driving on some of India’s most dangerous roads.

“Life away from home is always tormenting and you need some relaxation to ease the stress,” says Singh, who has completed a 2 000km trip carrying rice from the Punjab to this remote corner.

But while he looks relaxed on a string-bed outside a roadside food stand called a dhaba at Byrnihat, 70km from Shillong, capital of northeastern Meghalaya state, there are plenty of reasons to worry.

Singh (38) has stopped for the night in a place wracked by dozens of separatist insurgencies and on a route that leads to the golden triangle of heroin trafficking from Laos, Myanmar and Thailand.

He also plans to have sex with a prostitute that night in the region with the highest rates of HIV infections in India, which has the second largest number of cases in the world at 5,1-million according to official figures.

“There is no harm in having fun on wheels as long as one uses condoms,” Singh says.

That message is being spread by community healthcare experts who have launched a campaign to halt the spread of HIV by truckers, the virus that leads to Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (Aids).

About 10 000 trucks are on the highways in the northeast on a single day and more than half of the drivers and their helpers go for casual sex, according to a study conducted by Healthcare Foundation, a local charity.

More than two-thirds of three million long-haul truckers on India’s 8 000km highway network are 10 times more likely to be infected with HIV, according to the TCI Foundation, an HIV prevention advocacy arm of one of the country’s largest trucking companies, Transport Corp of India.

But only 11% of the truckers, who account for 12% of the HIV infected population in the country use condoms, TCI says.

“HIV/Aids infection rate in the northeast is indeed very high and truckers who frequent local sex workers without using condoms are found to be potential carriers of the virus,” says T Singh, a community healthcare expert engaged in anti-Aids awareness campaigns in the region.

At least 100 000 people are infected with the virus in the northeast with the state of Manipur leading at more than 20 000, according to official figures that likely underestimate the spread as they rely solely on cases reported by hospitals.

At Byrnihat, one of the many halts among the thousands of kilometres of mountainous pot-holed roads in the northeast, scores of truckers like Singh arrive at dusk and stay overnight. Having sex with prostitutes is commonplace.

“The highway is our home and these women are like our family,” explains Suki Ram, another truck driver. Like many of the men, he delivers essential items to the region such as rice, wheat and medicines.

Drug use raises the dangers for all of them.
HIV is prevalent among 39% of intravenous users, according to the National Aids Control Organisation.

“Many of the women sex workers in the region have a history of sharing needles to take drugs and hence the risk of being HIV-positive is even more. The truckers could be passing on the virus contracted here to other sex workers in different parts of India where they travel,” says Nilima Devi, a woman rights activist who works with sex workers.

The threat is so high, that India’s Defence Ministry instructed its nearly 50 000 army and paramilitary soldiers fighting insurgencies in the northeast to carry condoms as part of their official kit.

“Poverty is forcing women to sell sex on the highways and this is a matter of grave concern as the truckers often go for unprotected sex without realising the dangers of contracting HIV/Aids,” says SI Ahmed, head of the HIV/Aids Prevention Society, a community healthcare group.

Scores of outreach workers from the society conduct regular HIV/Aids awareness campaigns along the highways in Meghalaya and neighbouring Assam state as part of a drive called the “Healthy Highway Project”.

“Many drivers are aware about HIV/Aids but they still take risks by going for unprotected sex. Maybe their reckless lifestyle and the strenuous job makes them let out their stress drinking alcohol and going for sex,” says Yousuf Ali, a project volunteer.

Workers like Ali hold slide shows and distribute pamphlets at stopovers with the underlying message, he says, to “use condoms and go for regular health checkups”.

As part of the campaign, free condom kiosks were installed outside the dabhas as well as mobile health clinics with doctors and paramedics working exclusively for truckers.

“We counsel truckers to come for voluntary testing and not ignore ulcers or abscesses. During routine tests we have found many of them infected with HIV,” Ahmed says. - AFP

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