Saturday, October 01, 2005

Negative Matching, Positive Mating

This is truly absurd. And the media is even promoting this absurdity as the “need of the hour” – instead of making people aware of their folly.

The immediate provocation for this post is of course a front-page report in the Bombay Times of 25 September 2005 that says more and more couples want to get each other tested for HIV before marriage just the way it’s a practice to match horoscopes. Whether it’s a trend is questionable – the last time I was closely involved in match-making was more than 5 years ago when my cousin was eager for a bride. And I do not yet expect someone about to be engaged to talk about how their HIV tests are negative/positive and the marriage proposal is at the next state of negotiation/finalized. Especially at a time when HIV is still the ‘disease’ that dare not speak its name. (This week’s report in The Indian Express Mumbai Newsline on the inhuman treatment – pardon the pun – of HIV positive patients is enough proof if any were needed. If medical personnel can be so bigoted, why fault the lay person?).

Coming back to the issue of pre-marital testing, it’s no wonder that this ‘trend’ started in rural India – this is not an ideal world so perhaps in the real world information gets infected by the time it is transmitted from scientific journals to the Indian villager. I remember reading media reports on at least two villages – one in Punjab and the other in Maharashtra (scroll down each page to read the respective story ) – that proposed making HIV testing compulsory. (Even Goa, had this idea before better sense prevailed – and kudos to the Times journo for this report.) A crazy idea doesn’t take time to take root in a climate of fear and ignorance, a climate where even talking about safer sex is shameful. (Of course, there’s the other extreme of Pune’s Osho Ashram – or whatever the official name for this ghetto now – where this business of HIV testing really started, but then we know why they have such a strong fear.) So don’t ask me what these guys were smoking when they came up with the idea.

Ask what some of today’s journos and lawyers smoke though. Instead of pointing out the ludicrousness, the media publicizes the ‘trend’ and helps society give it sanction. The Bombay Times feature even espouses the idea (“the situation in the urban areas has improved with many couples willing to go through the test”). Then there’s this gem of a quote attributed to an advocate (as in lawyer) from a organization that calls itself the Maharashtra Law Graduate Association. (The MLGA has even filed a public interest litigation asking for pre-marital HIV testing to be made compulsory!) The report reads: “a considerable number of women have contracted the virus post marriage. “It may happen the other way round too where a man contracts the virus after marriage. However, most cases that we’ve come across are where women become victims of this.” Need one spell out why the idea is daft and self-defeating?

Has anyone heard of the window period? That’s the three-week to three-month period when the virus does not show up in a HIV test even though you are carrying it. What if A who is infected marries B in the window period, and even makes B pregnant during this time? And what if A gets infected after marriage whether through sex outside marriage or any of the other modes of transmission? Ok, forget HIV, what if A has Hepatitis B which transmits even more easily than HIV and can be fatal as well? While we are testing, we might as well test for STIs. And tuberculosis as well, which most of us carry anyway. The Sindhis, Kutchis, etc. test for thalasasemia. Heck, let’s test the genes of all brides and grooms as well and evaluate whether our babies will be super-babies with the right genetic mix. At the end of all the tests, we can double-check against the horsoscopes to see that a disease-free future’s guaranteed for the couple.

As Osho would have said – he should have if he didn’t – life holds no guarantee. Not even the guarantee that your spouse will remain faithful and honest to you – of course, that brings in a lot of awkwardness and unpleasant questions about marital relationships. So let’s just say that the only certainty in life is death.

But there are still some prospective couples (and this applies to positive gay men as well) who want to ensure conjugal bliss even if HIV is their soul mate. (I am not saying the virus is a death certificate but at least a reality check is in order.) So witness the matrimonials in some pockets of this country (which The Indian Express gushed about on its pages a few months ago), of HIV positive spouses seeking mates similarly qualified. IE should have also warned them about possible superinfection and its yet unknown outcome. In our example, this happens when A who is already infected with HIV, gets infected with one of the many other strains of HIV. This kind of superinfection is old news, by the way. If you are US-based and you do have a superinfection, you can now consider enrolling in a study being planned to understand its effects. So far, it seems there is even a “window of susceptibility” to a superinfection.

So you see, if you are starting out on the road to a ‘happy married life’, an HIV test is not the answer. If you are insist on an answer, all I can simply say is: trust in your spouse and leave the rest to God/Higher Power/Destiny.