Mumbai helpline counsels AIDS patients from Dubai, China

By Prashant K. Nanda, IANS

Mumbai : “I have tested HIV positive, how will I face my family?” asks a voice from Dubai on telephone. From a clean basement in a dingy building here, a counsellor answers the question.

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Counsellors at Population Service International (PSI) also guide AIDS patients from China, Singapore and the Gulf on how to live a better life.

“Since sex is a taboo topic, people prefer talking to a counsellor over phone than face to face. We sincerely protect the identity of the caller and, through non-judgmental tele-counselling, increase his comfort level to discuss his concerns,” said Kalpana, a counsellor with the philanthropic body.

“We develop a risk reduction plan and motivate them to go for voluntary counselling, testing services and follow a sincere medicine and good nutrition habit,” she told IANS.

Anirbana Mitra, senior programme manager of PSI, said an HIV/AIDS advocacy group, Hero’s Project, had promoted PSI’s number through Star TV bouquet whose channels are beamed in several countries.

“Because of promotion we have been getting calls from outside. Most of the callers are people who have some connection with India. We have even received calls from the United States and Pakistan,” Mitra said.

He, however, said that a majority of the calls were from India. The helpline 022-23892222 gets nearly 25 calls a day. The general age group of callers is 18-45 years.

Currently operational six days a week, the helpline provide health information and counselling on issues like HIV/AIDS, sexually transmitted diseases, contraception and safe sex practices.

Kalpana said all kinds of people – from daily wage labourers to executives – call it and ask all kinds of questions. She said many people are not aware about the cause of HIV/AIDS and ask question like “I know kissing cannot get me pregnant but can I get AIDS? I am not sure.”

She said the callers talk openly about their family and relationships.

“It’s really tough to listen to so many sad stories but as counsellors we give them proper guidance so that they can live happily or at least with less suffering.

“We never disclose the identity of our callers. We give everyone a code number and whenever he calls for further assistance, the counsellor concerned talks to him or her,” she added.

So how do the counsellors relieve themselves after listening to so many stories of sorrow and suffering?

“It’s really tough to behave normally after listening to so many people sharing their pain. But as conscious humans we talk to each and prepare ourselves for another fresh day. It’s the fun of our job,” added another counsellor on condition of anonymity.

Since its inauguration in January 2003, the PSI Mumbai helpline has attended over 100,000 calls. Now the organisation is using software that writes the conversion between a counsellor and a caller on the computer.

Mumbai is one of the HIV/AIDS high-risk metropolitan cities of India and the disease prevalence rate is as high as one percent among pregnant women at antenatal clinics. Nearly 45 percent of women in Mumbai’s infamous red light area Kamathipura are HIV positive.

India has over 2.5 million HIV/AIDS patients.