Delegates are gathering in Melbourne, Australia for an international conference on AIDS in the Asia-Pacific region. Among them is one brave young man invited to speak out about the difficulties of being HIV positive in China, where silence about and fear of the virus have contributed to the spread of AIDS.
Song Pengfei was just a high school student when in 1998 he was infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. He received a transfusion of tainted blood, after a doctor operating on him burst an artery in his thigh. At first, the hospital in Mr. Song's hometown in Shanxi province did not even tell him that he was HIV positive.
Mr. Song, 20, says, "when the hospital found out about the HIV, they tricked my parents and told us it was hepatitis." He says medical staff disinfected his room and told him to leave. Unable to go home immediately, Mr. Song spent that night in the hospital corridor.
Then the Shanxi hospital agreed to pay for Mr. Song's medical treatment. But after one year, it stopped, saying it had run out of funds. Mr. Song also tried to return to his high school, but he wasn't allowed.
He says, "my school told me I could only return after my illness was cured. None of my friends associated with me after that," he says, "just one or two, and even those don't see me anymore."
Mr. Song's mother, Zhang Hui, says the family tried to lead a normal life, but hundreds of villagers, including the local Communist Party secretary, hounded them each day. "People didn't want us," she said. "They carried placards; followed us on buses; protested at the city government; gathered in front of our door; and threw things at our home, telling us to leave. I couldn't go anywhere. Every time I stepped foot outside, people would yell at me. They followed behind me, saying I'm the AIDS mother."
Mr. Song and his parents bounced from one house to another, facing discrimination at every turn. They now live on the outskirts of Beijing, in a condemned building with cracked walls and ceilings that leak.
After years of silence and denial, the Chinese government has admitted it faces a growing AIDS epidemic. It says that some 600,000 Chinese are known to carry the HIV virus, and around 50,000 people have contracted the disease through unsafe blood transfusions.
Because of a lack of voluntary blood donors, China's official blood banks can't meet medical needs. Over the last decade, illegal blood stations have sprung up especially in rural areas. They pay mostly poor farmers to donate blood that is left unscreened for infectious diseases, and sell the blood to local hospitals.
In August, the government earmarked 115 million dollars to upgrade its blood banks and crack down on the illegal blood trade. But such measures fall far short for AIDS victims, like Mr. Song, who receives no support from the government. He's lucky enough to have found an American charity to pay for his medical treatment, but his family still faces widespread discrimination and struggles to make ends meet.
Mr. Song's father, Song Xishan, says he and his wife want to provide for their sick child. But it's impossible to find work because no one wants to hire them, he says.
Chinese state media have been told not to publicize Mr. Song's plight. So although he wants to raise awareness in China about AIDS, Mr. Song spends most of his days secluded in his one bedroom apartment, which he shares with his parents.
"I don't go to school anymore," says Mr. Song. "I just stay here and study by myself."
Yet Mr. Song will not be silenced. As long as he survives, he says, he wants to travel to AIDS seminars abroad, hoping one day his message will be heard at home.