KALPETTA: The tribal population in Wayanad is fast emerging as a HIV/AIDS high-risk group because of lack of awareness regarding unprotected sex and rampant sexual abuse of their womenfolk.
According to volunteers working in tribal regions of the district, the rise in detection of HIV positive cases calls for a targeted intervention.
As per the data provided by the Vihaan Care and Support Desk under the Council of People Living with HIV/AIDS in Kerala (CPK+), out of the 123 registered HIV positive cases in Wayanad, 21 patients belong to the tribal community. They include 13 females, five males and three children. Of the 13 female patients, seven are widows, whose partners had succumbed to AIDS-related illness. The data reveals that there is a sharp increase in reported cases of HIV/AIDS since 2012.
Taking into account the fact that the indigenous people make up only about 17 per cent of the total population in the district, these numbers are alarming, the volunteers said.
Moreover, the actual numbers could be higher than what is being reported. The problem is compounded by the practice of polygamy among many of the tribal sects and the increase in the number of sex workers.
Tribal women constitute about 40 per cent of the total female sex workers in the district who are registered with the Targeted Intervention (Suraksha) Programme, a project supported by Kerala State AIDS Control Society.
“There could be more tribal persons living with HIV. Of the 21 patients, many came to us when the disease was at an advanced stage. They were being treated for diseases such as TB and Hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection, before being diagnosed with HIV,” said an HIV positive volunteer with Vihaan, who did not wish to be identified. She said vertical transmission of HIV from mother to child and positive cases among pregnant women were also on the rise.
“A large section of the tribal population is ignorant about HIV/AIDS. Recently, we advised an infected couple not to conceive, but they did not heed the warning. The woman is now six-months pregnant, placing another life at risk,” she said.
District Medical officer O Neetha Vijayan said the situation requires a comprehensive investigation.
“We have been conducting multi-specialty medical camps in tribal belts across the district.
“Out of the 300 tribal TB patients, only two were found to be HIV-infected. Data to authenticate the exact number of cases are unavailable as forced HIV testing is a violation of human rights,” she said.
In July alone, six cases of sexual abuse of tribal girls was reported from different parts of the district.“Tribal women are highly vulnerable to sexual abuse by tribals and outsiders.
“Also, tribal men who migrate to agriculture fields in neighbouring Karnataka and Tamil Nadu indulge in unsafe sex. Their spouses get infected when they return to their native places,” said Mary Signie, district programme coordinator of the Kerala Mahila Samakhya Society.
According to her, instead of reporting the incident, victims of rape are often ostracised by their families and villagers.
“The government agencies should create more awareness among the tribal community about the dreaded disease and help the affected patients receive treatment immediately,” she said.
“A large number of sexual abuse cases come under the category ‘breach of promise to marry’.
Unfortunately, most of these cases go unreported, or the victim turns hostile during her deposition. Thirteen of the total 17 sexual abuse cases that had went to trial recently resulted in acquittals,” said DySP K B Jeevanand.
Minister for Welfare of Scheduled Tribes and Youth Affairs P K Jayalakshmi said that she will ask concerned authorities to examine the issue.