TV & Radio
China ignores AIDS victims
Pierre Haski YaleGlobal
FRIDAY, JULY 8, 2005
BEIJING In a recent meeting with UN officials, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao said on the subject of AIDS that the Chinese government is "determined and capable of curbing the spread of the disease, to ensure the people live a healthy and peaceful life." But in Henan, the region of China where AIDS exploded, the old habit of secrecy still rules.
With Beijing drastically underreporting the extent of the disease and resisting foreign help to fight it, thousands of infected Chinese are being left to further spread the virus and die unattended. Despite the public revelations of mass infections through contaminated blood, Henan residents continue to practice unprotected sex and send migrant workers to China's booming coastal region.
Only five years ago, AIDS was nowhere on the radar screen of China's leaders. Now AIDS-related items appear regularly in newspapers and television. The international community has praised the Chinese government for its change of heart toward a world epidemic that is still far from contained, particularly in Asia. But as is often the case in China, there is a big gap between the central government's stated intentions and some of its provinces' real actions.
Henan, a poor, rural and densely populated region of 100 million, has been hardest hit by the virus - the result of an infamous blood-trade scandal in the early 1990s. Authorities encouraged Henan's poor peasants to sell their blood to collecting stations for industrial use. Tragically, no precautions were taken, and tens of thousands - probably hundreds of thousands - of these peasants, who had never heard of AIDS, were infected with the deadly virus.
China's political system made a bad situation worse. My recent research shows that the authorities at local, provincial, and central levels knew everything by 1995. They stopped the blood trade, but did nothing about the mass contamination. From 1995 to 2003, people living with the AIDS virus were not informed of their infection, nor of the risks of contamination. Mothers gave birth to HIV-positive babies; existing treatments could easily have prevented these transmissions. Adults - particularly migrant workers in the industrial zones of eastern China - continued to have sexual relations without any precautions.
What has changed in Henan since 2003? Unfortunately, not enough. Even the number of contaminated peasants remains unknown. The ministry of health in Beijing laughs at Henan's official tally of 22,000. Dr. Zheng Ke, one of the Chinese doctors with the best field experience in Henan, puts the estimate at 300,000; others speculate the figure is closer to 500,000 or even a million.
Officially, the government has started distributing free antiretrovirals, the treatment that can stop the progress of the disease. The leadership has granted free education for children of AIDS patients and help for their communities. In reality, these treatments have been inadequate; a majority of patients rejected them because of side effects, while others have been trying all kinds of medicine, including experiments from Chinese army research centers. Many have opted against treatment altogether - and anxiously wait for their death. Worse, some were abandoned, like one man I met who was clearly developing the disease and who had been left waiting for a month for the results of his blood test. In dozens of interviews last year, I did not meet a single patient who was correctly treated.
This medical chaos would be enough to justify outside assistance. But Henan authorities are adamant not to allow any outside presence. When I travelled to the AIDS villages last year, I had to arrive at midnight and leave before daybreak to avoid the militias formed to stop journalists and nongovernmental organizations, both Chinese and foreign, from visiting AIDS patients. Chinese NGOs trying to organize orphanages for the thousands of Henan children who have already lost their parents have been violently chased from the province and their institutions closed.
This leaves tens of thousands of Henan peasants without adequate treatment, without any social support, and having to face the hostility of authorities who fear retribution for their role in the contamination process a decade ago. Until it brings assistance and justice to the victims of the Henan blood scandal, it's too early to cheer Beijing's change of heart on AIDS.
(Pierre Haski is a correspondent for the French newspaper Libération. This article is reprinted with permission from YaleGlobal Online (yaleglobal.yale.edu).)