Red Ribbon Express hits the right track on AIDS

By Sahil Makkar, IANS,

Guntur (Andhra Pradesh) : Blazing a crimson trail as it criss-crosses through India, the Red Ribbon Express (RRE) is grabbing attention among the rural masses as it spreads awareness about HIV/AIDS.

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Made up of seven coaches and painted in crimson red and pink, the much-talked about train chugged into a railway station in the coastal district of Guntur last week to an overwhelming response.

Greeted by drum-beating activists of various NGOs, the train coaches on the outside flaunted messages like ‘Zindagi Zindabad’ (hail life) during its three-day halt.

“We were keenly waiting for the train to arrive in our district. We will learn more and it will help us deal with HIV-infected people more efficiently,” D. Raja Kumari, a final year student in a private nursing college, told a visiting IANS correspondent.

The villagers of Guntur district didn’t disappoint, with a footfall of nearly 1,800 people on the very first day. Despite a searing temperature of 45 degrees Celsius, people queued up to enter the train. The number went up in the next two days.

“I have come from a village which is 60 km away from this railway station to see the train. I will spread awareness in my village after learning more on HIV from here,” said Masthanvali Sheikh, a labourer.

The fully air-conditioned coaches were painted yellow inside, with three of the coaches serving as exhibition space. Several boards, paintings, hangings, audio and video touch screens displayed messages in Telugu.

RRE, a joint effort of the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation and National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO), was launched Dec 1 in the national capital to traverse 9,000 km and cover 180 districts across the country to create awareness about the disease in over 43,000 villages.

The three exhibition coaches are designed in an innovative way to educate people about HIV. The first coach showcases modes of transmission of the disease. A dummy of long syringes that hangs on the window wall seems to advise the use of only disposable syringes.

Similarly, the dummy of a tall warrior fitted in armour seems to say that people can be physically strong but physique doesn’t guarantee protection against the disease. There are video game consoles on the train that show the HIV virus as an enemy and the need to adopt methods to guard against the disease.

Powerful messages can also be heard on six pre-recorded telephone kiosks placed in a corner inside one of the coaches.

The messages target mainly six groups – youths, teachers, media professionals, sex workers, students and social workers – and tell them how they can bring a change in society.

The train usually has on board NACO officials who are joined by people working in the field in various states.

It has one coach exclusively for master trainers who educate separate groups of students, panchayat leaders, sex workers, railway security officials and others. The fifth coach is reserved for counselling and medicinal purposes.

Andhra Pradesh accounts for 500,000 of India’s estimated 2.5 million HIV/AIDS patients. The highest number of AIDS patients in the state is found in the West Godavari, East Godavari, Guntur and Prakasam districts. Around 90 percent of infected people in the state contracted the virus from unsafe sex.

People from every walk of life visited the train and could be seen striking up conversations with the representatives of the AP State AIDS Control Society (Apsacs).

M.S. Rana, the chief executive officer of RRE, said: “We are welcomed everywhere with thousands of people at each station. Earlier we used to get 8,000 people each day. But now we have restricted entry to 3,000 people.

“The response is just overwhelming,” Rana told IANS.

Kalidas, additional project director of Apsacs, said: “Andhra Pradesh is severely affected by the problem. So our main aim is to feed as much information about HIV/AIDS as possible to the common man through simple and innovative ways. We are encouraging people to openly talk about the aliment.”

Various teams of activists and doctors from Apsacs visited remote villages in the range of 80 km in the three days that the train was there. They covered nearly two dozen villagers and educated people through folk songs and dances.

Women activists could be seen explaining the use of female condoms to both men and women.