India is the second most populous nation in the world and has changing sociopolitical and demographic characteristics as well as varied morbidity and mortality patterns [1
]. These changes, in conjunction with the country's high population growth rate, have exacerbated the prevailing and emerging public health challenges the country is facing. Since 1986 when the first case of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) was reported in India [2
], it has become imperative to include acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) on its long list of public health issues that need to be addressed.
As a direct result of these challenges, India has begun to assess and monitor the impact of HIV/AIDS throughout the country's various states and regions with the assistance of several international health organizations. According to 2003 estimates from UNAIDS, approximately 5.1 million individuals in India are infected with the HIV virus [3
]. Furthermore, recent studies indicate that transmission of HIV is no longer confined to high-risk urban populations, but is spreading across rural settings as well [4
]. This trend is a cause for concern as AIDS is increasingly hampering social and economic development throughout the country.
For effective control of the spread of HIV/AIDS, it is crucial to have data on knowledge, attitudes and behavioral practices for specific population as research has shown that socio-cultural influences, traditional lifestyles, societal norms, and traditions influence HIV/AIDS transmission rates [5
]. Because India's HIV/AIDS transmission pattern is predominantly heterosexual (85% of all newly reported cases) [7
], subcultures that have relaxed marital structures or are tolerant of high-risk sexual practices (e.g., sex with a commercial sex worker) are particularly vulnerable to the spread of HIV/AIDS and STDs within their communities [7
]. With more Indian men reporting premarital and extramarital sexual activity, women who marry as teenagers are vulnerable to HIV/AIDS infection and STDs [9
The rapid spread of HIV/AIDS in rural Indian communities has been attributed to the country's poor health infrastructure, poverty and lack of awareness [4
]. Despite these indicators, little is known about the risk factors, transmission rates, or the impact AIDS will have in these areas in the future. Traditionally, there has been little research and only a paucity of health-related research conducted among this potentially high-risk vulnerable population.
Throughout India, approximately 8% of the population lives within rural tribal communities, which are collectively referred to as 'Tribes'. These communities are geographically distinct; with each tribe having its own unique customs, traditions, beliefs and practices. Even within a particular tribal entity, differences in dialect, health practices, unique customs, values, and traditions are apparent. In rural Indian communities indices of reproductive health are typically very poor: maternal mortality rate is about 230 per 100,000 live births and 61.2% of the women suffer from at least one gynecologic pathology [11
]. Because tribal groups have existed on the fringe of Indian society, they may still be unaware or indifferent to the potential health threats from HIV/AIDS. Ascertaining whether or not tribal communities are potentially a high risk group warranting intervention is a necessary step in India's war on AIDS. Accordingly, we undertook this study to explore the risks for this special group of people.