Retired gynecologist and former medical professor Gao Yaojie, currently living in the United States, has hit out at official Chinese AIDS statistics as "rubbish," saying the majority of infections come from a network of thousands of blood-selling and transfusion clinics across the country.
Gao, 85, fled China in 2009 in order to publish work relating to the scandal of HIV-infected blood transfusions and the practice of blood-selling in poverty-stricken rural areas.
Chinese health authorities say they expect the number of people living with HIV/AIDS to reach 780,000 by the end of 2011, a figure Gao bluntly dismissed.
"They are talking rubbish. Right now there are at least 10 million people with HIV," said Gao, who now is wheelchair-bound with heart problems and devotes all her time to writing books about her life's work.
"The HIV virus is a different strain in China, and a lot of it is transmitted by the selling of blood," Gao said in an interview broadcast by RFA's Cantonese service ahead of World AIDS Day on Thursday.
Gao estimated that there are currently more than 10,000 blood-selling stations across China, in all regions of the country.
"They can't bring themselves to admit that HIV is being transmitted through blood transfusions ... so they insist it is sexually transmitted," she said of the official government analysis of China's AIDS figures.
Rates climbing fast
The Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said this week that infection rates are climbing fast among older people and college students, and blamed unsafe sexual intercourse.
Gao dismissed the report, saying that only around 10 percent of HIV infections are transmitted through sex.
"Sixty percent of people who have sold blood have HIV," she said.
"Now, the selling of blood [for donation] has gone underground. No one dares to talk about it, and any talk of it is fiercely suppressed."
She said she had visited Hunan, Hubei, Yunnan, Guizhou, Guangdong, Guangxi ,and Sichuan provinces before she left China, as part of her research into the blood-selling industry.
"There were a lot [of blood-selling stations] in Guangdong, in Jieyang," she said.
"But the problem is a nationwide one. It's just that in the south, no one makes a fuss about it, while a few people made a fuss about it in the north, so everyone thinks the [problem is] in the north."
"They're wrong. It is nationwide. Wherever you have blood-selling, you also have transfusion. It begins with the blood-sellers, then spreads to transfusions," said Gao, who is currently compiling and sorting through her vast library of photographs for publication in two forthcoming books.
A record of suffering
"It is two years and two months since I arrived in America," Gao said, shortly after recovering from a blood-clot and returning from a hospital visit.
"I have already had three books published, and I am working on two more ... I work at least four hours a day," she said.
She added: "I am incredibly tired every day. I fainted a couple of days ago... I can't walk, and I have to use a wheelchair to get about."
But she said she feels a strong need to write down everything she knew after leaving China.
"On the question of my leaving China, I have no regrets, because if I were in China right now, I wouldn't be able to write about these problems," Gao said.
"I am 85 years old. My time here is limited. I want to leave a record of the suffering of these people for future generations."
"If we only talk about our successes, then we will never improve our work," she said.
Known as the “Number One AIDS activist in China,” Gao began her work to combat the epidemic in 1996 when she was already 69.
In 2001, Gao was awarded the Jonathan Mann Award for Health and Human Rights, and in 2003 she was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service in Manila, Philippines.
In both instances she was denied permission to travel outside China to accept the awards.
In 2003, Gao was designated one of the "Ten People Who Touched China" in 2003 by state broadcaster, China Central Television.
In September 2007, the New York Academy of Sciences gave her the Heinz R. Pagels Human Rights of Scientists Award.
Until May 2009, Gao lived in Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan province in central China.
She fled the country after police cut off her telephone service, citing fears she would be harassed, physically harmed, or otherwise prevented from continuing her work.
Reported by Bi Zimo for RFA's Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.