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China Facing AIDS Crisis - 2002-11-29

After years of ignoring people infected with HIV, the Chinese government is admitting it faces an AIDS crisis. Activists warn that drastic action is needed to curb China's AIDS epidemic.

Song Pengfei was infected with the virus that causes AIDS through a tainted blood transfusion four years ago, when he was a high school student in China's central Shanxi Province. Mr. Song says news about his infection spread quickly through town and his neighbors panicked. Teachers banished him from school and villagers hounded his family out of their home, warning them never to return.

Now 21 years old, Mr. Song lives in Beijing and remains healthy, thanks to the free treatment he receives from an American AIDS foundation. Mr. Song has created a Web site with advice about AIDS. He has spoken at several international AIDS conferences and is perhaps China's most famous person infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

But in an indication of the pervasive discrimination against people with AIDS and HIV in China, Mr. Song feels he must assume a false name to hold down a job. He says he has found work at a computer company, but neither his employer nor his colleagues know his true identity. Mr. Song says he was desperate for a job, and had no other choice. "People may say they understand AIDS," he says, "but if they actually have an HIV infected person working next to them, they won't like it."

China only this year admitted the extent of its AIDS crisis. The first AIDS case was reported in 1985, but for years, the government considered AIDS a national embarrassment that had to be covered up. While officials ignored the problem, the virus spread among intravenous drug users, prostitutes and villagers who engaged in unsanitary blood selling.

Now, officials are calling for urgent measures to curb the disease and state news media are helping to raise awareness. Qi Xiaoqiu, head of China's department of disease control, says one million Chinese are infected with the AIDS virus. Mr. Qi warns that if the problem is not controlled, China could have 10 million people carrying the virus by the end of the decade.

The United Nations gave the same warning in a report earlier this year, although U.N. officials estimate that 1.5 million Chinese are infected with HIV.

The government has organized national conferences to develop prevention programs and train health professionals. It has also begun to manufacture drugs to treat the disease. In August, China sold its first domestically produced anti-AIDS medicine, a generic version of the drug AZT, which has long been used in other parts of the world.

Mr. Qi at the health ministry says the average AIDS treatment costs $10,000 a year. He says China has been able to cut the cost of treatment by more than half, to about $4,000, by producing generic versions of foreign drugs, and persuading foreign manufacturers to cut prices on anti-AIDS drugs.

But even with this price reduction, Mr. Qi says most Chinese still cannot afford AIDS treatment. He says only about 100 people now receive treatment in China, and most of that is donated. Mr. Qi says China will consider breaking patents on newer Western AIDS drugs if foreign companies do not cut their prices even further.

Yet rights groups say the government itself is to blame for impeding efforts to control the spread of HIV. Despite the government's increasing openness about the disease, it continues to harass independent AIDS activists, whom it considers a threat to the social order.

Many critics cite the case of Dr. Wan Yanhai, a former health official who was detained for a month last summer after posting an official document on the Internet about the AIDS epidemic in China's central Henan Province.

Dr. Wan's action brought attention to the deadly trade in tainted blood among poor farmers in Henan in the 1990s, and the fact that local authorities were aware of the practice but publicly denied it for years.

The official Xinhua News Agency says Dr. Wan was detained on suspicion of leaking state secrets, and released because he confessed. China often treats public health statistics as classified information.

Nicolas Becquelin, a Hong Kong researcher for the group Human Rights in China, says Beijing cannot curb the spread of AIDS until it allows activists such as Dr. Wan to operate freely. "Communities with extremely high risks, such as the gay community, sex workers, or in the case of China, villages affected by faulty blood collection practices, have to organize themselves and of course need certain basic rights of information and association in order to…relay the awareness message," he says.

Song Pengfei, too, would like to be free to raise awareness about AIDS in China. Mr. Song says he used to want to devote his life to stemming the spread of HIV and helping those with AIDS, but that does not seem possible in China. He says the government has not done enough to reform its legal, educational or medical systems, or to make it easier for HIV-infected people to participate in society.

In the meantime, Mr. Song says he needs to make a living, and for now, that means pretending that he is not infected with HIV.