Pune: According to the annual statistics released by citybased Samvad HIV/AIDS helpline, a staggering 50 per cent of its 12,477 callers in the last one year were in the age group of 15–25 years, with a majority of them graduate and post–graduate students.
The helpline, formed three years ago by a group of citybased volunteers, was motivated by the lack of awareness among people about HIV/AIDS. A voluntary initiative of citybased Maitri trust, Samvad stands for ‘Making you know and talk about AIDS.’ Aided by the Heroes project, the organisation undertakes numerous awareness drives including sensitisation sessions at government offices, schools, outreach drives.
“When I used ot work at the governmenmt hospital I met 13 year olds who believed that testing HIV positive was ‘Good’, because they were taught in school that anything negative was bad. It was apalling and saddening at the same time. That is when I felt I shoulkd join Samvad,” said Anuradha Tarkunde, one of the oldest counsellors of Samvad.
Discussing the profile of the callers, Betty Anthony, another volunteer told TOI that in the last one year, a new group of callers from the BPO industry has emerged in a big way. “We never got calls from them before this,” she said.
The city–based helpline has been getting calls from not only rural Maharashtra, but also Bangalore, Delhi, Rajasthan, and even Dubai, Singapore and Africa!
Madhu Oswal, another volunteer shared that callers from other countries often come to India only to get themselves tested for HIV. “Some countries deport the foreign nationals if they test positive. So these people come to India only for the test,” Madhu said.
Maximum calls are centred around questions relating to transmission and anxiety about tests. “The window period between unsafe exposure to the virus and testing positive is three months. It can be a very harrowing time for the person, and they often turn to our helpline for support,” she added. While most of the counsellors on the helpline are women, only two per cent of all callers constitute women. “Perception level among women is low, and they are shy too,” said Rupa Agarwal, another Mukta volunteer.
Noting the changes in calls over the years, Betty said that in the initial days of the helpline, the callers would be “Hesitant” in talking about their problems. “Over the years, people have become more straightforward, more comfortable with putting their problems in exact words,” she said.
Tarkunde said that numerous callers have questions about oral sex and anal sex as means of transmission of the virus. “We explain to them the various other ways in which they can enjoy their sex life without putting themselves at risk. Most of our callers believe that using more than one Condom reduces their risk of transmitting the virus…which is completely untrue!” she added.
For a helpline that handles up to 80 calls everyday, Samvad volunteers have their own share of problems. Lack of dedicated volunteers is among the key issues at Samvad. “We put all our volunteers through a rigorous two–month training period before putting them on the call lines. So we welcome volunteers from any background, as long as they have the required empathy and patience,” said K C Bhushan, a volunteer.