Nineteen Chinese AIDS patients have been awarded more than $1 million in compensation in a victory hailed by rights campaigners. Benjamin Robertson in Beijing reports.

The nineteen AIDS patients were infected by contaminated blood transfusions, and state media says their award of $1.2 million in compensation represents the biggest lawsuit of its kind in China.

Fifteen of the patients were infected while undergoing operations at a hospital in northern China's Heilongjiang province in 2004.

Three of them subsequently passed the HIV virus on to their spouses. Another patient later unwittingly infected her five-year-old child.

The infected blood came from illegal blood sellers who commonly operate close to hospitals using makeshift blood donation equipment.

Li Dan, who runs the China Orchid Project to help AIDS orphans, says the case shows how the law in China can sometimes be used to benefit victims.

"One can now use legal channels to protect rights. This is an improvement. Some local governments are now thinking about how to resolve this problem," said Li Dan.

Rights campaigners say this case signifies an important milestone in dealing with AIDS patients.

Last June, after an investigation, three of the hospital's staff were sentenced to jail for buying illegal blood.

It was also discovered that two regular blood donors living in the area had died of AIDS. Investigators suspected they may have been the original source of the outbreak.

Other similar cases are currently being heard in court.

Li however cautions against calling this suit a breakthrough, as many people in China are still ignorant of the disease and treat AIDS patients with suspicion.

Often there are no clean needles or sterilized equipment to receive blood donations, and the blood is rarely tested for viruses.

During the 1990s, hundreds of thousands of poor farmers in central China became infected through dirty transfusion schemes, as they sold blood in a desperate bid to make money.