HIV a thidam theih loh, mahse a inven theih, CONDOM hmang ziah rawh.” The meaning is simple. “HIV can’t be cured but it can be prevented. Always use a CONDOM.” Just to drive home the message, presented by the Mizoram State AIDS Control Society (MSACS), the word condom is in a different colour and all caps when compared to the other letters. This is one among a number of social messages plastered in Mizo around Aizawl. At first glance, it’s curious to see messages like these in almost all corners of the city. Some are right outside places of worship, which includes some of the biggest churches in the state. Mizoram has a substantial Christian population, mostly Presbyterian.
The answer to those messages lies in the state’s numbers with respect to the prevalence of HIV/AIDS. Over 1,300 people have died of it in the state since 1990 according to MSACS. As per the 2011 Census, 1.19 per cent of the state’s population were HIV positive.
The State Fact Sheets for 2013-14 available on the National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO) website — a branch of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare — make for grim reading. While India’s total adult HIV prevalence stands at 0.27%, Mizoram ranks very highly at 0.74% (only behind Manipur, which is at 1.22% and Andhra Pradesh which is at 0.75%).To spread awareness — which in itself is an interesting paradox because Mizoram (91.33%) is only second behind Kerala (93.91) when it comes to literacy in the country — MSACS puts out posters informing people about the ills of unprotected sex and drugs among other things.
Predictably, it did not have the support of the church or the general public in the area. “Log kya kahenge (what will people say) was the response we had when we first outlined the visions of the poster campaign,” an official in the know told Express. “There is a strong Christian presence in the area and most of them were cheesed off. They did not want people to look at posters like this and develop a perception about the state. But we remained steadfast. Posters like this have improved awareness. We have gotten (high-risk category) people to come and see us after reading those slogans.” That hasn’t been the only method of trying to contain the spread of the virus in the state.
Football, too, has been used as a tool to inform the public. When the problem first came to light more than a few years ago, MSACS organised a Red-Ribbon inter-state football tournament to promote prevention of HIV. “As part of a multimedia campaign, the government of Mizoram, NACO, MSACS and United Nations Office Drugs and Crime (UNODC) are supporting the Red-Ribbon football tournament in Mizoram,” a UNODC press release stated in January 2010. At the final, where Electric Veng beat Dinthar 2-0, even CM, Lal Thanhawla (who was voted back to power in 2013), made it a point to put football front and centre in the fight against HIV. “Let the success of the football tournament make the people of Mizoram aware about the dangers of HIV/AIDS, a deadly disease which however is not unbeatable.”
The tournament attracted more than 4000 players. The competition returned for a few more editions but because of a lack of funding, the event hasn’t been held for the last few years. States like Mizoram have been facing a funds shortage which has resulted in money meant for social programmes being diverted to other departments. Scroll and Caravan, two media houses which have done a series of articles, explain the issue. “Mizoram has been going through a financial crisis for some years now. Its monthly expenditure exceeds its monthly inflows. The state treasury has been regularly redirecting funds for social sector programmes to salaries and other administrative expenses.” This was also independently confirmed by the official in the know.
The more worrying trend is some of the latest figures put out by NACO. The State Epidemiological Fact Sheets says “a total of 5762 HIV/AIDS cases were estimated across Mizoram in 2015. There has been an increasing trend in the total burden of the epidemic in the State since 2007 — a 22% increase in total estimated cases during the last eight years.”Sharing a border with Myanmar also hasn’t helped MSACS’ fight against HIV/AIDS. “More than sex workers, there is a problem with drugs entering Mizoram through Myanmar,” the official said. “People share needles, inject themselves with No 4 (an alternative name for heroin) and sometimes share partners.” The cash crunch has meant the state has had to even borrow needles from other places (they recently asked Tamil Nadu’s help in getting new syringes).
The Mizoram Football Association (MFA) secretary Lalnghinglova Hmar is aware of these problems and hopes football can play its part in containing it. “We have tried to contain it through football,” he says. “We had something called the Red-Ribbon inter-village football tournament. It is an effective vehicle to spread awareness.” The MFA, one of the better run football bodies in the country, urges registered players to shy away from practices linked to HIV/AIDS.
“It’s a problem, it is going on at an alarming rate. We have an ongoing campaign where we urge players registered with the Association to refrain from those kinds of habits and practices. Apart from that, we also have a pledge where we make the players line up before matches and spread awareness.”
MFA’s silent fight also extends to the war on drugs. “We have already started what we call tobacco-free football. All MFA-organised football tournaments should be free of tobacco. This is a very high cancer state and usage of tobacco is one of the main problems. This is another programme we have started.”
Nobody knows if or when the state will see a reversal of the numbers stated above. The official, though, is optimistic of change. “We are doing our bit and believe that the information is out there. Now we can only hope.”
Prevalence of HIV/AIDS in Mizoram is high compared to most other states
More than 1100 AIDS-related deaths since 1990. There is an accompanying drug problem as the border with Myanmar is porous
A funds crunch has amplified the problem with Mizoram having to even borrow paraphernalia like syringes from places like Tamil Nadu
Mizoram State AIDS Control Society, a govt-run body, monitors high risk groups and tries to contain the spread of the disease
Football tries to do its bit. In years gone by, a tournament organised by MSACS, and supported by the Mizoram govt and the likes of UNODC, was used to spread awareness about AIDS.
Mizoram Football Association also spreads awareness among registered players. Apart from that, one of their recent programmes is tobacco-free football. All football competitions run by MFA will not contain tobacco as its another huge problem