Patrick Goodenough | Pacific Rim Bureau Chief | Monday, May 10, 2004
The communist government for a long time played down the scale of the problem -- and punished those who sought to publicize it. But on Sunday, the Chinese state council, or cabinet, published a document admitting the spread of the fatal disease, and setting out steps aimed at changing the situation.
From a single case diagnosed in a foreign tourist in 1985, the disease has spread to all 31 of mainland China's provinces, the report said.
The report estimated that 840,000 Chinese were infected with HIV and about 80,000 had full-blown AIDS.
Those figures fall short of estimates by foreign experts, some of whom believe more than one million people may be affected in the worst-hit province, Henan, alone.
The official People's Daily has in the past quoted teams of Chinese and international researchers as saying 12 million Chinese could be infected by 2010 unless measures are taken to control the spread.
Beijing on Sunday also released the text of a speech by Vice-Premier Wu Yi last month, in which she warned that the epidemic was at a crucial stage, and threatening to spread from high-risk groups to the wider community.
If effective prevention and control measures were not taken, "the consequences will be very grievous," said Wu, who is also health minister and the government's key figure in the AIDS campaign.
She called for a crackdown against illegal blood collection, steps to curb the spread of the virus through blood transfusions, and measures to cut down on prostitution and drug use.
The government would also promote condom use and encourage the exchange of syringe needles to prevent infections being spread by dirty needles.
The cabinet report outlined other steps, including greater funding for the research and production of drugs, educational drives, and free AIDS prevention services for pregnant women to lower risks of mother-to-baby transmission.
The report also promised financial assistance for AIDS carriers and their relatives, said social discrimination against patients would be combated.
Local officials would be held directly responsible for curbing the disease, and "those officials breaching duty or hiding epidemic reports will be severely punished."
According to the U.N. agency UNAIDS, some 42 million people are infected with HIV worldwide, almost 30 million of them in Africa. Twenty-five million people have died around the world.
Outside of Africa, experts believe that China - where 30,000 people died of AIDS in 2001 - is among the countries at greatest risk, together with India and Russia.
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Julie Gerberding said in a speech in Singapore last year that the situation in China was akin to that in Africa a decade ago.
But for many years, Chinese officials and official media either ignored AIDS or treated it as a disease affecting drug addicts and foreigners.
Only in recent months has Beijing appeared ready to take the matter seriously. Last December the new premier, Wen Jiabao, shook hands and spoke with AIDS patients in Beijing, in an effort to challenge the social stigma attached to the disease.
Most of China's sufferers have been infected through blood transfusions, although the ratio of sexual infections has climbed steadily, from 5.5 percent of all infections in 1997 to 10.9 percent in 2002. Mother-to-child infection also is occurring.
The worst outbreak originated in the early 1990s in Henan province, where health department officials and their relatives allegedly ran suspect blood collection centers in rural areas.
Very poor people were paid for blood donations, but the use of dirty needles saw hundreds of thousands of villagers contract HIV, according to western researchers.
Human rights campaigners say communist party officials tried for years to cover up the scandal. Journalists were harassed, Chinese activists punished, and the victims themselves badly neglected.
For instance, a senior Henan health official was sentenced last year to a prison term of at least eight years, for allegedly circulating a restricted government report on the Henan affair which blamed national authorities and others for the HIV-AIDS spread.
Ma Shiwen was charged with circulating state secrets by using his computer to send the report to Chinese AIDS activists.
Human Rights Watch has praised recent statements by Wu, but said Beijing should be judged on whether it actually implements the undertakings.
It said legal action against those involved in the Henan blood scandal would be a good start for Wu's new accountability policy.
According to the U.S.-based organization, there has been no official investigation of state responsibility for the Henan episode, and some officials involved had been promoted.
A Human Rights Watch report in 2002 revealed widespread discrimination against people living with HIV-AIDS -- including detention without trial of drug abusers and prostitutes -- saying many ended up living "underground" without access to treatment or care.
It has urged China to pass an urgent national law barring discrimination against people with HIV-AIDS. It also called for a mechanism through which victims of discrimination could file complaints.
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