The spread of AIDS in Africa and the United States often gets a lot of attention, but the focus shifted to AIDS in India at the “AIDS in South Asia” conference held yesterday.

Undergraduate students, graduate students, professors, and even visitors from Massachusetts and New York filled Winslow Auditorium at the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health to hear panelists speak.

The conference featured two discussion panels, the first on “Challenges to Controlling AIDS in India,” the second on “Responses to Controlling AIDS in India.”

At the first panel, development specialist and author Siddharth Dube said there had not been enough political support for the fight against AIDS since the first case in India was recorded in 1986.

“We are in the middle of a catastrophe. India is headed for a cataclysm five to eight years down the line — two million people have already died of AIDS,” Dube said. “The response has been woefully inadequate and a lot more needs to be done.”

Purnima Mane, the vice president and director of the Population Council’s International Programs division, a group that researches issues relating to populations and disease, argued that the issue of stigmatization of the disease was in many ways larger than the epidemic itself. She described the negativity and hostility directed toward HIV patients. As an example, she cited the Indian Supreme Court’s decision to prohibit the marriage of HIV positive people.

“There has been evidence of covert discrimination, such as deliberate neglect in hospitals and cases of victims being excommunicated,” Mane said. “The key is de-stigmatizing.”

As part of the second panel, Johns Hopkins University infectious disease specialist Robert Bollinger discussed epidemiology and treatment of the virus in India. He talked about what India could learn from the experience of other countries facing the epidemic, such as the United States.

Suniti Solomon, the director of India’s Centre for AIDS Research and Education, talked about the involvement of non-governmental organizations in tackling the problem.

“Fifty percent of the population is not literate, so we raise awareness through activities like paintings and street plays,” Solomon said. She said her program also has a drug office and 24 beds for care of AIDS patients.

J.V.R Prasada Rao, the director of the Indian government’s National AIDS Control Organization, summarized India’s responses to the AIDS pandemic.

Rao said the Indian government’s anti-AIDS achievements have included an increased level of awareness and improved blood safety, adding that the government understands its task.

“We are much aware of this enormous challenge we are facing,” Rao said.

But Kaveh Khoshnood, an assistant professor in the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health and adviser for the Yale AIDS network, said the speakers did not fully address all the issues.

“My opinion is that a lot more questions were raised than answered,” Khoshnood said. “I would like to hear more about the nature of the work being done. We were told about the number of programs involving sex workers, but what exactly are their strategies? They could lecture prostitutes ad nauseum about condom use, but if their clients pay more for not using a condom or brothel owners take the contraception away from them it is of no use.”

Epidemiology and public health professor Robert Heimer said he didn’t get “a sense of urgency from the discussion.”

“India is so big, so populated, with so many other health problems that AIDS is not pushed to the forefront,” he said.

Shalini Kapoor EPH ’02 said she was impressed with the conference.

“I’m really glad the AIDS issue in South Asia is being discussed, we hear a lot about Africa but not so much about India, where it is a major problem too. The speakers were impressive, and I was glad that not all of the panel speakers were academics, but rather workers on the grass-roots level, whose perspective is particularly important in this discourse,” Kapoor said.