Chinese take to streets over rising Aids levels


Last year, HIV/Aids became the leading cause of death by infectious disease in China, overtaking tuberculosis and rabies, reports CLIFFORD COONANin Beijing

IN A rare show of defiance by HIV/Aids sufferers in China, dozens of people from the Henan province who were infected through blood transfusions demonstrated in front of the country’s health ministry in Beijing to petition the authorities for help with their plight.

“About 37 or 38 of us Henan people came to the health ministry to try to tell them that we have got HIV/Aids by blood transfusion or blood selling,” says Gao Yanping, one of the demonstrators.

The protests highlight many of the problems that people living with HIV in China have to face, despite government efforts to improve the situation.

The action took place at the same time as health minister Chen Zhu released a wide- ranging report on the illness. Data shows that as of the end of October, the number of Chinese confirmed to be living with HIV/Aids was 319,877, up from 264,302 last year and 135,630 reported in 2005. But Chen said the actual level of infections was probably nearer 740,000.

Another 50 million people are in high-risk groups such as sex workers, migrant labourers and drug users. There are scores of millions of migrant workers in China, and they are in a particularly risky category as they include prostitutes and the labourers who pay them for sex.

HIV/Aids last year become the leading cause of death by infectious disease, overtaking tuberculosis and rabies to get to the top of a grim table, most likely because of improved reporting of the data.

“The local governments only have clinics for us, which do not have appropriate medical supplies for our treatment. So, some of us have gone to hospitals elsewhere for treatment, but had to pay the bills ourselves. Our lives are ruined. We just want the right to live,” says Gao.

The protesters were taken inside the ministry to have their cases heard. Officials took notes about their individual cases, she says. “Some of us have to sell our houses to pay the medical treatment. It is too much for us,” she says.

The demonstration was watched by a number of officials in police cars, including one with licence plates from Henan province.

Millions of people in rural China have had their lives destroyed by HIV/Aids, in poor provinces like Henan.

The protesters included four children with HIV/Aids, who were apparently infected by their mothers.

Many poor farmers in Henan and other provinces became infected with the disease when selling their blood to profit- making blood-collecting agencies, which established networks among rural communities.

Some of these were legal, part of a national drive to source blood plasma for booming biomedical companies, but an unquantifiable number of illegal blood stations were also set up, and some farmers would traipse from village to village to donate blood for cash in unmonitored, unsanitary stations.

The blood collected would be pooled by blood type, which means many more people in China have become infected through transfusions of blood. The number of HIV infections began to rise and in 1998 the government banned the practice.

Those infected face high levels of discrimination. According to a report by UNAids, a quarter of medical staff and more than a third of government officials and teachers developed negative and discriminatory attitudes towards people living with HIV/Aids after learning their status.

More than 12 per cent of people with HIV/Aids had also been refused medical care at least once since they tested positive.

Some of the demonstrators in the Beijing protest last month had been to the health ministry before, says Gao. The protesters wanted to see if they could get help to deal with their plight, as many have run up big debts getting treatment.

“There are a few children around. They have got Aids from their mothers. It’s so miserable,” she says.

“We want to tell the government our situation and ask for their help and compensation for us.

“Some of us cannot do physical labour, we are so weak,” she says.

The report released by the health ministry shows that sex is now the main cause of the spread of HIV/Aids in China.

Data shows that 40 per cent of new HIV infections diagnosed were acquired through heterosexual contact, while sexual transmission between gay males accounted for 32 per cent of new infections, and most of the remainder related to drug abuse, which was previously the main source of infections and the government’s main focus for prevention.

“In China, we have a long way to go to prevent and control HIV/Aids,” Chen says, describing the government’s policies toward the disease as “open and transparent”.

The minister outlined some of the government’s programmes to help deal with the disease.

Authorities provide free voluntary blood tests, free anti-retroviral treatments for poor HIV/Aids patients, free medical advice and treatment for pregnant women and infants, free education for HIV/Aids orphans and governmental care for patients who lived in poverty.

Despite high-profile pictures of top leaders embracing people with HIV/Aids, the government remains sensitive about the disease, and regularly cracks down on activists and patients who seek more support and rights.

China’s most famous HIV/Aids activist Hu Jia was jailed last year on subversion charges for his activism.

Last month, UNAids launched a campaign to address rampant discrimination against people living with HIV/Aids in China, with the help of Chinese basketball megastar Yao Ming.

The campaign includes posters and videos of Yao and his fans, including some with HIV, displayed on giant screens in 12 cities across China.

In another initiative, local authorities in southwestern Yunnan province converted a bar into a “common room for partner education” for the gay community, as part of the official initiative to break social stigma against gay men.

Yunnan has the highest number of HIV/Aids cases in the country.