Chinas Biggest AIDS Battle Is Against Ignorance


2004-08-16
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HONG KONG—Harassment and discrimination against people affected by HIV/AIDS in China are still widespread in spite of government pledges to tackle the epidemic by boosting awareness.

Organizers of a group of 72 “AIDS orphans” who arrived recently in Beijing to attend a summer camp said they had been turned away by some 40 schools, hotels, and hostels who feared their presence would unsettle guests and students.

The children are not infected, but the schools and hotels worried that their students or guests would feel uncomfortable knowing that their facilities had been used by AIDS orphans.

The move prompted a strong reaction from the United Nations children’s agency, UNICEF, whose goodwill ambassador Roger Moore slammed the attitude of the schools and hotels at a news conference reported in official media.

“The schools, resting houses and hotels should hang their heads in shame who refused to take the 72 orphans, believing in some unfounded way that these children could infect other guests and children,” Moore was quoted by Xinhua news agency as saying.

The AIDS orphan summer camp, jointly organized by the China Youth Concern Committee, the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention and UNICEF, started Aug. 10 in Beijing. “Despite being healthy, they were still refused by nearly 40 hotels and school dormitories in the past two months,” camp organizer Li Qimin told Xinhua.

International research has shown that high levels of social inequality and discrimination in a society are frequently found alongside high rates of HIV/AIDS infection.

In July, authorities in the central province of Henan closed down a school set up by non-governmental activists for AIDS orphans whose parents contracted the virus from selling blood in government-backed schemes in the 1990s, which have caused a major epidemic in China’s countryside.

China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention predicts the country will have between 138,000 and 260,000 AIDS orphans by the end of 2010.

Non-governmental AIDS activist Hu Jia told RFA’s Mandarin service that local officials feared the publicity that surrounded such schools. “The existence of this non-governmental work on behalf of AIDS orphans will attract the attention of volunteers, the media, and society. This will constantly put AIDS-related news out into the world. At this time, officials have a great aversion to that; it is something they will go to great lengths to resist,” Hu said.

The Dongzhen School in Henan’s Shangqiu City was set up by Li Dan and other AIDS activists. Last year, a similar school providing basic education to 38 AIDS orphans in Houyang Village was shut down on the grounds that “the conditions for running a school were lacking.” Houyang has also been ravaged by AIDS, with 200 deaths among the adult population and around 100 children orphaned as a result.

Part of the problem is the attitude of local officials to any sort of non-governmental social activity. “The government has never supported orphanages run by non-governmental organizations, non-governmental assistance lines, or any aid activity by non-governmental organizations,” Liang Yanyan, one of the Dongzhen school’s founders, told RFA’s Mandarin service.

“They still have that old kind of thinking, they think that if non-governmental organizations do something that the government is not doing, they are basically questioning why the government isn’t doing it,” Liang said.

Growing economic insecurity in recent years has led to a deepening of territorialism on the part of the local officials, who depend on the appearance of order for their jobs and therefore their livelihoods and social status.

“Henan is among the places that are rather closed; so, for example, provincial officials have a kind of punitive system,” Hu said. “If, for example, county or township level officials do not prevent this kind of information [about AIDS] from leaking out, or if they allow reporters to come in from the outside, they may be fired.”

Li said during his visit to Bangkok to attend an AIDS conference that he had informed Henan officials of his attendance at the conference before he left, and that they apparently feared greater international exposure of Henan’s dire AIDS situation.

Also in Shuangmiao Village, Zhu Longhua, a doctor in the local clinic who ignored official limits for medicine for HIV/AIDS patients, was detained as Li was released, for giving out more than the officially sanctioned amount of medicines to patients under his care. Some 400 people from Shuangmiao’s population of 3,000 are HIV-positive.

Official figures put the number of China’s HIV/AIDS infections at around 840,000, but officials acknowledge the real number could be much higher.

According to a recent survey, only 8.7 percent of Chinese people are fully aware of how HIV is transmitted. Some 25 percent of rural residents have never even heard of the virus, according to the survey conducted by Futures Group Europe and Beijing-based Horizon Research Group.

The survey also found that few people express caring attitudes and acceptance for those infected by HIV or living with AIDS. Only 33.9 percent of urban residents and 19 percent of town residents think that HIV carriers should be allowed to continue working.

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