Getting a basic HIV test done can be a nightmare even in Delhi’s best hospitals, finds NEHA DIXIT
AISA KYA KIYA ki test karane chali aayi? (What have you done that you’ve come for a test?),” the receptionist asks with a big grin on her face. “Kuch nahin, kai baar blood donate kiya tha. (Nothing, I donated blood several times.)” “Aajkal syringe se to hota nahi hai. Boyfriend hai tumhara? (It doesn’t happen with syringes these days. Do you have a boyfriend?)”
Filmstars and celebrities urge everybody to fight the stigma of AIDS, and hoardings sprout at every nukkad saying, “Jab ho HIV avastha ka gyaan, to bani rahe muskaan (When HIV status is known, the smile holds its own)”, a simple HIV test remains out of reach of ordinary Indians. Posing as college students, we visited a number of government and private hospitals in New Delhi to get an HIV test done. We found that not only were basic facilities absent in most hospitals, but prejudices against those seeking an HIV test began right inside the hospital premises.
To start with, all hospitals are required under law to have an HIV counselling centre. But such centres, where they exist, have been relegated to some remote corner of the hospital campus and were functional for just fits and starts. The HIV counselling centre at the Safdarjung Hospital is located at an isolated spot on the fifth floor, while at the Maulana Azad Medical College (MAMC), even the Delhi Medical Council does not know if an HIV centre is there. Similarly in GB Pant Hospital, LNJP Hospital, Holy Family Hospital and also at the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), receptionists were clueless about the presence of such a centre. Dr Ajay Khera, Joint Director of Basic Sevices and Surveillance Division, National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO), says: “We can’t keep a check on each and every centre in the country. It is the responsibility of the Delhi State AIDS Control Society to make sure that the centres in each hospital are easily accessible.”
While the fee for an HIV test in government hospitals is Rs 10, at private hospitals it is Rs 300 on average. But most government centres are open only till 12 noon. The HIV centre at Safdarjung Hospital is closed most of the time. The guard there says, “It opens twice a week. Sometimes not even that.” A patient waiting outside for his report says, “For the past three days I have been coming here. But the centre hasn’t opened all these days.” Even though repeatedly contacted by TEHELKA, Dr Sudhir Chandra, Additional Medical Superintendent, Safdarjung Hospital, was not available for comment.
EVEN WHEN one manages to reach a centre, the troubles have only begun. A pretest counselling session is advised so that a person does not feel traumatised if the result is positive. The session itself is a traumatic experience. Firstly, the so-called counsellors just can’t stop smiling. Even though the government campaign says people in the age group of 15-29 are at the highest risk, it is scandalising for the counsellors to find a young, unmarried girl walk in without a doctor’s prescription for an HIV test. While the counsellor at MAMC hints he suspects you to be a prostitute, the one at AIIMS wants to know, “How sexually active are you?” The counsellor at the LNJP Hospital was outraged by the fact that one had walked in with a man. “How do you know him when he is from some other college?” he demanded to know.
A person taking an HIV test has the right to informed consent and confidentiality. Unfortunately, both government and private hospitals fail to guarantee anonymity. A TEHELKA photographer could walk in, take pictures and walk out without a check. Dr Y. Pandey, Acting Medical Superintendent at the Holy Family Hospital, argues, “Even though the pictures were clicked, the report still remains confidential. However, we need to check what rules are being followed at our pathology.”