Giving AIDS the Red Light

Kolkata Sex Workers Earn Respect and Protection From Fighting Disease

Today, 430 peer educators spread awareness throughout Bengal, and 36 brothel-based medical clinics regularly treat sex workers. Among other things, DMSC has established a school for sex workers' children, a money-lending co-op, and a cultural group that spreads AIDS awareness through music, dance, and street theater.

Meanwhile, the City Counseling Center feels positive that more and more people will visit to get treatment or just to talk. Since January of this year, Banerjee and her colleagues have treated 205 patients, of whom 35 tested positive for HIV. Not surprisingly, only a handful of infected patients are sex workers, says Counselor Nabanita Ghosh. Rather they are mostly ordinary people like housewives and college students from middle-class homes.

The center offers generic antiretroviral drugs like Stavudine, Lamivudine, and Nevirapine, at the dirt cheap price of $10 a month (a 75 percent discount from the already discounted price of $40 a month offered by Aurobindo Pharmaceuticals). But most HIV-positive patients avoid pursuing treatment unless they absolutely have to, probably for fear of social rejection. Center staff hope the Kolkata Network of HIV Positive People will help to clear the stigma veiling AIDS, and will provide easy access to sympathy, support, and guidance. Since January, when the network had 40 members, the size of the network has more than doubled to 85 members.

"Now instead of checking horoscopes, people should check each other's blood before marriage," joked Nandita Banerjee, one of the center counselors.

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