AIDS Doctor Fears Return to China

2007-03-15
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Dr. Gao talks with Mandarin service broadcaster Zhang Min. Photo: RFA >> View Larger Image

WASHINGTON—Leading Chinese AIDS activist Gao Yaojie says she fears further harassment from local authorities when she returns home after a U.S. trip during which she received a human rights award, Radio Free Asia (RFA) reports.

“I am very concerned that the authorities will find new ways to keep me down when I return,” Gao, 80, told RFA’s Mandarin service during her trip. “I am particularly worried about my family. Both my son’s and my e-mailboxes have been closed.”

The government-run blood-banks are closed. But not only have the black market blood-banks not closed, they are on the increase again.

Gao, a retired gynecologist, was honored by the Vital Voices Global Partnership, a nonprofit group whose honorary chairwomen are U.S. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, Democrat of New York, and Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, Republican of Texas.

Officials initially detained her Feb. 1 as she went to collect a U.S travel visa. Under international pressure, she was ultimately permitted to make her first-ever trip to the United States.

GaoInOffice200.jpg
Dr. Gao Yaojie. Photo: RFA >> View Larger Image

Elderly and diminutive, Gao is credited with saving hundreds of thousands of lives in China, after she launched a one-woman crusade in the mid-1990s to expose the blood plasma donor business that triggered an HIV/AIDS epidemic in Henan province. It was she who found a link among a rising number of patients with AIDS: All had donated blood plasma at unsanitary collection centers, for about U.S. $5 per donation.

“The epidemic is different in China from anywhere else because I have spoken to AIDS groups here in the United States and they say it is mostly transmitted through sex and intravenous drug use. But in China, while I don’t deny the transmission of the virus through sex between men, and I don’t deny drug use, the largest part of transmissions occur through the blood trade,” Gao told RFA reporter Zhang Min.

Blood trade resurges

“Most of the cases I have seen weren’t transmitted sexually. They were transmitted through blood transfusions.”

Video: In an informal chat with an RFA reporter, Gao Yaojie shares her first impressions of the United States: “Relations between people are different here.”

Gao’s view isn’t popular in many circles, where local officials tend to report HIV infections as transmitted by intravenous drug use, making the illegal blood-trade less visible on the official record. She has been repeatedly harassed, had her phone cut off, and been held under virtual house arrest by local officials angered by her forthright style and tireless work on behalf of China’s AIDS patients and orphans.

In the early 1990s, commercial blood stations flourished in Henan. Some farmers who sold blood became infected with HIV through unclean equipment. Sellers sold blood by volume, so to reduce payments and allow farmers to recover faster, the stations often re-transfused them with red blood cells left after the valuable plasma was taken.

Now, Gao says the problem hasn’t been solved, just brushed under the rug.

“The government-run blood-banks are closed. But not only have the black-market blood banks not closed, they are on the increase again. Twenty-five counties in Guizhou alone are engaged in blood-selling. Recently they discovered some people in Guangzhou who had been selling their blood for 10 years, from midnight to 6 a.m.,” she said.

Blood-selling continues

She said AIDS often left the poorest and most vulnerable in society without hope or help. “I have seen a young child of 19 months die of AIDS and an old man in his 70s in a Henan hospital. The situation for women is even worse, because they can often be hit by AIDS via blood transfusions during childbirth, or they sell blood...And it’s not just in Henan. There are many other places where the problems are just as bad. In Shanxi it’s even worse than in Henan.”

In December, UNAIDS reported in its 2006 Epidemic Update that the Asia-Pacific region suffered 630,000 deaths from AIDS-related illnesses in 2006.

HIV infection risk is associated in Southeast Asian countries with unprotected commercial sex, sex between men, and unsafe injecting drug use, the Update said. The report blames the failure of governments to adequately address the role of sex between men in the epidemic.

In China, new infections are on the rise among injecting drug users, although half the new infections in China during 2005 occurred during unprotected sex.

The virus was spreading gradually from at-risk populations into the general population and there is a rise in the number of infections among women, the report said, although it was based on official Chinese government figures, which are affected by how local officials choose to report them.

A Feb. 24 article in the British medical journal The Lancet notes that China’s first AIDS case was identified in 1985 in a dying tourist. By 1998, HIV had reached all 31 provinces and had entered a phase of exponential growth, with 650,000 infections by 2005.

Local officials blamed

Gao lauded the Health Ministry in Beijing for taking an enlightened view of HIV/AIDS in China. But she wasn’t very optimistic that the vision of leaders in Beijing would ever be implemented on the ground. “The level of education of local officials is really very low,” she said.

“They just take public office because they want to make money and get promoted to a higher level. It’s very hard to say because the problem of corruption is also widespread at lower levels of government.”

She said the central government was likely to have backed her following an interview with RFA from her home by telephone in February. “During the time when I was under house arrest, my telephone was cut off...And Radio Free Asia’s Zhang Min got through. During the interview, I said I was under house arrest and being watched by many people.”

“I told Zhang Min that living was worse than death for me because I was under so much pressure. I believe what I said in that interview made a difference. I believe the interview played a decisive role. I believe when the Chinese leadership learned of what I had said during the interview, they decided to allow me to travel to the United States,” Gao said.

Original reporting in Mandarin by Zhang Min and Shen Hua. RFA Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.

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