By Kamil Zaheer
NEW DELHI, Feb 23 (Reuters) - More than 40 percent of women in India have not heard of AIDS, according to a government survey that has alarmed activists.
India has 5.7 million people living with HIV/AIDS, according to the United Nations, which is the world’s highest caseload. But the prevalence rate, in the country of 1.1 billion people, is much lower than in most of Africa.
The National Family Health Survey (NFHS), the most extensive study on health and nutrition in India, said in its latest report only 57 percent of women have heard of AIDS.
In rural areas, where most Indians live, less than half the women — 46 percent — were aware of the disease.
Activists said on Friday that poor awareness among women was fuelling the epidemic.
"This shows women don’t have access to information, translating into more women getting infected," said Anjali Gopalan, head of Naz Foundation India, a leading anti-AIDS group.
In the past few years, there has been a growing "feminisation" of the epidemic in India with nearly 40 percent of all those infected now being women, including housewives.
"Biologically, women are more susceptible to HIV," said Christy Abraham of ActionAid-India. "The lack of awareness adds to the HIV threat they face."
One reason for low awareness is that the government has focused prevention efforts on high-risk groups like prostitutes and intravenous drug users, rather than on the general population.
"But we are expanding prevention efforts among the general population in rural areas, especially women, over the next five years," a government official said on condition of anonymity.
Many rural women have been infected by their husbands who work in the cities and visit prostitutes. Stigma stops infected husbands from telling their wives they are HIV-positive.
The NFHS survey, supported by UNICEF as well as the British and U.S. governments, shows a gulf in awareness between men and women, with 80 percent of men having heard of the disease.
Only 54 percent of Indian women are literate compared with 76 percent for men.
Many women in villages do not have television in their homes and miss out on anti-AIDS advertisements, say activists, calling for a broad-based effort to educate and empower women.
"Even if they do have TVs, there is no electricity in many areas. This is one way how fighting HIV is linked to the issue of general development," Abraham said.
Activists want the government to spend more training and sending grassroot health workers to spread AIDS education among women, especially in poorer and highly populated states.
In the eastern state of Bihar — home to 85 million people — only 35 percent of women have heard of AIDS, with the level of awareness falling to 30 percent in villages.