Miracle Train: Fighting HIV/AIDS Across the Nation

By Samir Alam

Mohan (name changed) lines up at the testing and counselling bogey of the Red Ribbon Express and awaits his turn. A truck driver by profession he is used to travelling across Punjab and Haryana most of the year but today he has come with a few friends to get tested for HIV/AIDS.  He doesn’t think he is sick but a friend of his suggested that he should be checked. After all being on the road has its risks.

Taking to a sadhuji and an auto-wallah about what the test is like, his fears about the procedure are calmed when one of the men in the line tells him all it takes is a little pinch of a needle. Mohan says he isn’t afraid of needles but wonders how he can know if there is a chance he might be sick. Taken into the counselling berths of the train one of the doctors explains how HIV/AIDS is contracted and asks Mohan about his risk behaviours.

Mohan seems relieved. After all he says he always uses a condom and doesn’t do any drugs. He hesitates in consenting for the blood test. But after a little encouragement from his friends he obliges. The doctor tells him it will take about half an hour. He should come back later. He exits the train and takes a seat near the platform.

He isn’t going anywhere.

Half an hour later he is back in the bogey asking for his results. There is a faint mist of sweat on his brow in the December sun but it isn’t because of the heat. After a little checking he is handed his results. He puts it in his pocket and walks away from the crowd. When asked if he is going to see it, he says, “I will. But not here. I’ll see it at home.”  Seconds later he opens the note and smiles.

Mohan is one of the fortunate few who can take safer steps in the future to protect himself from HIV/AIDS but the 2.3 million people infected in India are not so lucky.

The Red Ribbon Express is in many ways nothing short of a cure in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Although not a commercial passenger train, it is more importantly a carrier of hope in its mission for AIDS awareness. Inaugurated on World AIDS Day 2007 this train’s mission has been to spread the awareness about AIDS and HIV all across the country.

“We’ve covered 22 states in the past year,” says Dhirendren, a counsellor aboard the train, “We’ve hosted over 8 million people, tested nearly 39,000 people and counselled nearly 60,000 more.”

In India, which laments the third largest population of HIV/AIDS victims globally, the initiative to employ the largest civil transport system to combat this disease has been a victory. And after having covered a distance of over 22,000 km and reaching over 8 million people it took a halt at New Delhi’s Safdurjung Railway Station from 29th November to 1st December.

“Along the way we have expanded our mandate,” says Dr. Raj Upadhyaya of the National AIDS Control Organisation, “Other than HIV/AIDS we also provide information and assistance to malaria, tuberculosis and swine-flu.”

Having tested over 3.5 million people across the country over the last year the Red Ribbon Express welcomed visitors in Delhi and also provided counselling and testing to Delhities. Since its arrival, troves of NGOs and other civil organizations have come to Sufdurjung to see the train and gain valuable information.

Although most of the visitors brought by the NGOs are “at-risk” groups such as migrant labourers and member of the transgender community, it is no longer surprising to find the regular middle class taking advantage of this opportunity.

“Its no longer a taboo to be tested,” says Susheel Kumar, an officer at Safdurjung station as he prepares to be tested, “The disease can spread through more ways than just sex. Its more responsible to be tested.” Regardless of certain changed attitudes in a city like Delhi the doctors, nurses and technicians aboard the Red Ribbon Express have encountered obstacles in rural India.

Kalim Ashraf works as a lab technician, taking and testing blood samples of patients who wish to be tested. However he finds that clarifying people’s doubts about the disease is the harder task. When not working in the lab, he takes the time to observe how many of the people who come to the train are always wary not to get too close.

“When we first arrive, there are NGO groups and school children ready to see what we do and take our help,” he says, “but its the people who don’t know anything about the disease that are really in need of help.” In order to break the fearful silence, the Red Ribbon crew in conjunction with State support and local groups, performs skits and street plays in the cities they halt at to explain and demonstrate the risks and precaution with regards to HIV/AIDS.

The main goal for the crew of this train lies not in just treating the disease but also in healing the mind of the community. By following a strict code of ethics they protect the confidentiality of their patients and provide them with the best care possible.

And despite the test only taking at most a couple of hours to be finished, they realize that the results, positive or negative, are only the beginning of a long journey aimed at changing the attitudes of the community.


~ by samiralam on November 30, 2010.

2 Responses to “Miracle Train: Fighting HIV/AIDS Across the Nation”

  1. nice story samir..

  2. Hi, I came across your okhla mandi post and was wondering if you’d be interested in syndicating your content on our Delhi based portal. For more information, please email me on priyanka@acropoletravels.com. Thanks!

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