January 10, 2009

Doctors protest ‘baseless statement’ by A.P. Human Rights Commission chief

B. Subashan Reddy, chairman of the Andhra Pradesh Human Rights Commission (APHRC), has called for legislation to prosecute parents with diseases such as tuberculosis, HIV, leprosy and dyslexia should they, knowing that they have the disease, have children.

His remarks in Hyderabad have drawn a sharp response from three doctors who say that “the statement is devoid of any substance or rationale” and that “making irresponsible and ill-considered statements like this could lead to further stigmatisation and ostracisation of an already marginalised population.” This is the text of the response:

It was with great concern and disbelief that we read the statement made by the chairman of the Andhra Pradesh Human Rights Commission regarding criminal prosecution of persons with diseases such as tuberculosis, HIV, leprosy, or dyslexia if they had children. We would like to give reasons why this statement is devoid of any substance or rationale and point out that making irresponsible and ill-considered statements like this could lead to further stigmatisation and ostracisation of an already marginalised population.

Neither tuberculosis nor leprosy is a genetic or inheritable disease. Further, both are curable with drugs and patients become non-infectious within a few weeks of starting treatment.

Children with dyslexia, a common learning disability, only need recognition of their problem and educational and social support to be able to function as normal, self-reliant members of the community.

Tuberculosis is an air-borne infection and anyone can get the disease at any stage in life.

Half of adult Indians have latent TB infection, which can flare up to active TB in later life. Should all these people abstain from having children for fear that they may develop TB one day?

HIV infection spreads by sexual contact, mother-to-child transmission, and use of unsafe needles and blood or blood products. Mother-to-child transmission accounts for less than 4 per cent of new infections in India — even these can be prevented by screening and timely treatment of pregnant women. HIV is now a treatable chronic illness and no longer the death sentence it used to be.

While all efforts should be made to prevent HIV infection in men, women, and adolescents in this country, we should remember that most women who acquire infection get it from their husbands to whom they have been completely faithful.

Women often are also not aware that they are HIV positive till they are tested during pregnancy — MTPs may not be possible at that stage and the best option is to provide anti-retroviral drugs to prevent transmission to the foetus.

We stress that it is the responsibility of the State to protect and help these women, not criminally prosecute them. — Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, Senior Deputy Director, Tuberculosis Research Centre, ICMR, Chennai; Dr. Nalini Krishnan, Resource group for Education and Advocacy for Community Health (REACH); Dr. M. Mathews, Consultant in Leprosy, formerly with the German Leprosy Relief Association (GLRA) and Gremaltes.

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