The Lok Sabha passed Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) (Prevention and Control), Bill, 2017 marking a significant step in ensuring equal rights for a section of population that has been battling societal stigma for long. 31 years after the first case of HIV was reported in India, the government has finally passed a legislation that would guarantee timely medical help and the right to a dignified life to the affected section.

In a country where people living with HIV/AIDS are denied even their fundamental rights, the Bill has given the much needed legislative framework to ensure non-discrimination in the fields of education, healthcare and employment among others. It has also inserted the confidentiality clause which gives the right to people living with HIV to withhold the information related to their health. Institutions are also barred from revealing the information without the consent of the affected person.

Most importantly, the Bill has made it a legally punishable offence to deny a person living with HIV health insurance on the ground that the infection causes lowering of immunity.  This has been a point that was raised repeatedly over the years by insurance companies to deny even basic treatment to those living with HIV.

Recognizing that HIV/AIDS often causes children to be orphaned, and extended families are reluctant to shoulder their responsibility, the Bill says that any person aged between 12 and 18 years with “sufficient maturity in understanding and managing the affairs of his HIV or AIDS affected family” can act as a guardian of another sibling below 18 years of age to be applicable in the matters relating to admission to educational establishments, operating bank accounts, managing property, care and treatment etc.

India might be among the nations that have made progress in arresting the spread of the virus. According to the estimates released by the Health Ministry, the rate of new HIV infections have dropped by 67%, from 2.5 lakh to 85,000 and AIDS related deaths have declined to 54% per cent, which is more than the global average. Even then, India has the third largest HIV epidemic in the world with a prevalence rate of 0.26 per cent. 55 per cent of the total cases in the country are reported from the states of Andra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.  In a more worrying instance, it was found that HIV prevalence in in smaller states like Tripura, Assam and Sikkim has doubled during the last few years.

The government has on its part set up 22,000 HIV testing centres in the country, which conducted 2.9 crore HIV tests, including 1.3 crore pregnant women and also spent Rs 2,000 crore on Antiretroviral Therapy (ART). The Jan Aushadhi outlets selling generics drugs at one-fourth the cost of those in the market has played a major role in ensuring that the treatment costs do not weigh down families with financial constraints.

However, the legislation will serve its purpose only when the society is able to overcome the stigma attached to HIV/AIDS. For this, the government and NGOs should come together to create more awareness and encourage those living with HIV/AIDS to seek any help they require.