China has given a great deal of attention to its efforts against Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, which has been the Chinese government's apparent top public health priority in recent weeks. At the same time, though, critics charge that comparatively little attention has been paid to AIDS, which is a much bigger and more deadly problem in China.
The U.S. China Economic and Security Review Commission, a group that advises Congress on national security implications of U.S. trade with China, held a recent hearing on the impact of SARS on the Asian nation. Commissioner Robert Ellsworth asked the witnesses to compare the disease to HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. "Why is it that SARS has made such an impact and HIV has not?"
One theory put forward by Xiao Qiang, director of the University of California at Berkeley's China Internet Studies Program, is that most Chinese HIV sufferers are in the countryside. "They are the rural peasants. Nobody knows about them. But this time, SARS broke out in Guangdong and Beijing, two [of the] most populous and developed areas," he said.
Another witness, U.S. Naval Academy Associate Professor Yu Maochun, had two explanations. He said the first is a basic, human reaction. "When you come to HIV, it's a known disease. They can cover up and there's no fear, within, say, we know how HIV is transmitted, in other words. If you don't go to [central] Henan [province], don't go to other places, it's less likely to be transmitted. I think SARS is scary," he said.
But Professor Yu said other, equally important, reasons why the Chinese government is paying so much attention to SARS are international attention and harm to the economy. "It is because of the foreign press. It is because of the governmental reaction, and also the business circle. You have a massive exodus of businessmen, and also, international conferences were being canceled. Soccer was not played over there," he said.
The spokesman for the Chinese embassy in Washington, Sun Weide, said SARS gets more attention right now because it's still relatively new. "I think that we are well-aware that SARS, I think, is the first major disease of the 21st century, while AIDS, I think has existed for quite a few, for very long time, I think since 1985, we have found actually AIDS cases in China," he said.
Mr. Sun acknowledged that AIDS is a serious problem in China, and says Beijing is taking a wide array of steps to try to combat it. "For example, at the moment, the Chinese government is reforming the health care system, and we actually are setting up rural health care cooperatives; government, and central government and local government will pay subsidies to help farmers join the system. And we're also banning the illegal plasma trade, which has actually been one of the major sources for the infection of AIDS. And we, the Chinese government, have invested $272 million in 2001 to establish and upgrade 495 blood banks in central and western regions," he said.
Zuo-Feng Zhang, a professor in the University of California at Los Angeles's School of Public Health, said AIDS is a much bigger problem for China than SARS. He says SARS has infected about 5,300 people and has led to more than 340 deaths. By comparison, he said international organizations like the World Health Organization estimate that the more deadly HIV virus has infected vastly more Chinese. "At the end of last year, it was estimated that China has about one million people with HIV, or AIDS, and it was predicted by WHO or U.N. AIDS that, according to the recent speed, the number's going to increase to ten million people by year 2010," he said.
Professor Zhang said one of the problems is that China, with its 1.2 billion people, devotes only about five percent of its annual budget to health care, compared to about 15 percent in the United States. "China only spends a very small amount of money, and the health care system in rural China is really, I don't think can really deal with AIDS or SARS. And if they cannot deal with SARS, they definitely cannot deal with AIDS. That's a problem," he said.
Professor Zhang said he is encouraged that China's new leadership is showing greater determination to fight SARS and be somewhat more open about it. He says he hopes that the Chinese government will have the same attitude when it comes to the greater task of dealing with AIDS.