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Peers help truckers combat HIV/AIDS

Indulekha Aravind  |  New Delhi 

REACHING OUT: TCI ropes in 'peer group educators' and helps set up general health clinics as part of the campaign.
Twenty-year-old Vimal used to be just another helper in a truck. Today, he conducts sessions for other helpers and truck drivers about general hygiene, health and, most importantly, sexually transmitted infections at a Khushi Clinic.
The clinic is supported by transport and logistics major Transport Corporation of India (TCI) in Ghaziabad through its corporate social responsibility arm, Transport Corporation of India Foundation (TCIF).
The clinic, situated near a truckers' trans-shipment centre, is part of a chain of mobile and static general health clinics set up by TCI near truckers' halt points at 17 locations in the country and is part of its Project Kavach, (kavach is armour in Hindi) which aims to check the spread of HIV among long-distance truck drivers. Vimal is one of the 360 peer educators working for the programme.
Project Kavach has its genesis in Microsoft founder Bill Gates' visit to India in December 2003. Long-distance truckers were one of the groups he wanted to cover in his AIDS prevention programme and he contacted TCI for this.
After the programme was launched, an internal survey was conducted, in which it was found that truckers suffer from "low self-esteem and stigma," said Anil Nair, project manager, Project Kavach, TCIF . "So, we decided to emphasise on their role in society and their responsibilities as individuals. Awareness about sexually transmitted diseases is just one part of this," he said.
The sessions, conducted by Vimal and others like him are called Inter Personal Communication and have peer group educators that include former truck drivers, helpers and tea stall owners, and are about general hygiene and health.
The importance of using condoms are a part of this. Each session, typically, will have two trainers and 10-20 truckers and helpers. The trainers use 9 dialogue-based "tool" or cards to get their message across, such as correcting myths like alcohol gives immunity to sexually transmitted infections.
The trainers have become part of the programme for different reasons. Vimal, for instance, became involved when he visited TCIF's Khushi Clinic in Ghaziabad for treatment. There, he was asked whether he would be interested to be part of the programme and he agreed.
Others, like 45-year-old Mahesh Chand Sharma, felt they should contribute their bit to society. The trainers earn Rs 125 per hour per session, and most of them earn an average of Rs 2,000-3,000 a month. Though it was not easy getting the drivers to open up, the fact that the peer educators were one among them made things easier.
Khushi Clinics are another part of Project Kavach. A typical Khushi Clinic, such as the bright blue and yellow one in Ghaziabad, are general health clinics with a doctor, a nurse, a counsellor and paramedical staff. There is also a mobile unit, with separate staff, which goes to pre-determined areas for a certain number of hours each day.
The focus is not just sexually transmitted infections, as it was felt that this would restrict its reach. This also helps the patients confide more easily to doctors when they have symptoms for the same.
Consultation fees are waived and medicine is provided at cost price. Though no testing for AIDS is done at the clinics (except for the one in Bangalore), referrals to other hospitals are given when there is a suspicion of the virus being present.
TCIF, which aims to cover 1.4 million truckers by 2008, has tied up with local NGOs. In Ghaziabad, it has tied up with the Cyriac Elias Voluntary Association. Truck brokers are also an integral link. At several places, the brokers' offices are used for carrying out the programme.
Other activities include street plays, film screenings and "trucker utsavs" (infotainment events on a larger scale), besides sale of condoms through 800 non-traditional outlets.

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First Published: Mon, July 02 2007. 00:00 IST