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AIDS Activist: China's AIDS Stigma Deadly, Outspoken Advocates Needed

A prominent South African AIDS activist has said the stigma of having AIDS in China is leading to needless deaths and that more outspoken advocates are needed. But, as Daniel Schearf reports from Beijing, Chinese authorities have a habit of silencing activists.

South African activist Edwin Cameron told journalists Thursday people were dying in China because of the stigma of HIV.

Cameron said the fear of being discovered as infected was discouraging people from getting tested and receiving treatment.

"It continues to seem appalling to me that people should be dying of a medically manageable and entirely treatable condition," he said.

Cameron was in China at the invitation of the Chinese government and the United Nations Program on HIV and AIDS.

A recent United Nations supported survey revealed half of Chinese polled would be unwilling to have a meal with an HIV-infected person. Nearly a third said HIV positive children should not be allowed in public schools.

Cameron, who is himself infected with HIV, said he encouraged AIDS activists in China to be more outspoken to raise awareness, especially those living with HIV.

"I think that the involvement of people with AIDS in North America 20 years ago changed that whole continent's understanding of AIDS," he said. "That shift has yet to occur in China. And, I think the shift can only occur with the involvement of people with AIDS and HIV who are speaking for themselves"

Cameron is a Supreme Court Justice in South Africa and was careful to say he was not encouraging protests against the government.

Activists who Chinese authorities consider too outspoken are threatened, beaten, and sometimes imprisoned.

Earlier this year a well-known Chinese dissident and AIDS activist, Hu Jia, was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in jail on vague charges of "subversion."

The Chinese government has in recent years been raising awareness and education about AIDS after years of denying the country had a problem.

Cameron applauded the Chinese government for passing laws against discrimination and giving free antiviral drug treatment to AIDS patients. But, he said the free medical care needed to be expanded to cover infections brought on by HIV.

"They are the AIDS-defining infections," said Cameron. "And, the antibiotics that you need are very expensive but you've got to pay for them yourself in China. So, the situation is dire and money is definitely a problem"

There are an estimated 700,000 people infected with HIV in China but most of them are not aware of it.

Experts say that number may be low and that up to 50 million Chinese are at risk of contracting the disease because they engage in high-risk behavior such as drug use and prostitution.