I am +, a first-of-its-kind dance theatre on HIV in India

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New Delhi, May 21, 2018: In a breakthrough effort to communicate science through the creative arts, the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI) came together with Delhi Dance Theatre and PULSE Ensemble to present ‘ I am +’, a multimedia dance theatre performance on HIV at the LTG Auditorium in the capital, on Friday evening.

The performance highlighted the challenges of living with HIV in India and the current unmet needs in the HIV/AIDS response from a scientific as well as a social perspective.

India has the 3rd largest population living with HIV in the world. Despite the availability of treatment, HIV remains one of the most stigmatised health conditions with emerging challenges such as evolving strains of the virus, drug resistance and co-infections. The performance communicated that there exists a critical need for collaborative and integrated efforts to better understand and address these challenges.

Rooted in the very site of HIV research and activism – the human body – the performance brought together diverse perspectives from people living with HIV, care providers, researchers, activists and artists on the occasion of HIV Vaccine Awareness Day.

Citing the learning that the performers received, Nawa Lanzilotti, director, PULSE Ensemble, said, “This project has been one of the most tremendous learning and eye opening experiences in our journey of arts. It was an amalgamation of arts, dance, science, music and we believe it is a great way to create space for dialogue and spread awareness in a more effective way.”

The performance was followed by a panel discussion which deliberated on the need for new HIV prevention tools, including a vaccine. The panel included eminent figures such as Dr Kalpana Luthra, Professor, Department of Biochemistry, AIIMS; Prof Indrani Gupta, Head of the Health Policy Research Unit, Institute of Economic Growth; Dr Timothy Holtz, Programme Director, Division of Global HIV and TB, CDC India; Dr Rajat Goyal, Country Director, International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (India).

The panelists unanimously agreed that the field of HIV Prevention and Research has advanced and today cure seems a possibility. Dr. Rajat Goyal said, “The biggest hope is that HIV/AIDS, which once was a death sentence, is today a chronic disease. The challenges always come; we need to try. The way we ended TB and polio, we will end this epidemic for sure. For this, we all need to come together, we can’t keep on working in silos. Science needs to keep pace with the changing epidemiology of the infection. There are many preventative tools available today, but we need to keep updating them, will we look for cure. There are options being tested, including the broadly neutralizing antibodies mentioned in the performance today. I am very hopeful that a Vaccine for HIV is possible in near future.”

However, the panel also emphasized that there are unmet needs which yet need to be addressed and the policymakers need to focus equally on prevention and treatment.

Prof Gupta said, “Both prevention and treatment are important. India has launched the Antiretroviral Therapy Programme and we are very happy with it. But we also know that it has only reached 50% of the people and 33% of children who needed it have got the treatment. So we have a huge unfinished agenda at the treatment front.”

She further added, “Even though quite a lot is being invested on research and development, especially on the treatment front, still it’s probably not enough as the budget for HIV is shrinking, and it’s shrinking on a global basis. India spends 1% of its GDP on health including prevention of AIDS, but it’s not enough and policy makers and other stakeholders need to increase funding for HIV and AIDS. And if we have a vaccine, the cost effectiveness needs to be kept in mind too.”

The world’s largest-ever generation of young people is aging towards adolescence and young adulthood. Global experts warn that an increase in new HIV infections is inevitable unless rates of viral suppression are sharply increased and rates of HIV transmission are substantially lowered