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HIV patients refused care in China

24th May 2011

Chinese health experts and international labour advocates say that there is a severe lack of understanding of HIV/AIDS among Chinese healthcare workers.


Their findings were published by the UN's International Labour Organisation (ILO) in a recent report, which concludes that most Chinese medical personnel seem unable to treat HIV/AIDS patients.

It cited lack of understanding of the epidemic and fear of transmission as major barriers to effective care.

While officials say the main transmission route is primarily through sexual contact, dissident doctors like Wan Yanhai and Gao Yaojie have been harried into exile for their insistence on the importance of tainted blood-selling schemes in rural areas of the country.

The HIV epidemic exploded in rural Henan province in the 1990s, infecting hundreds of thousands of people, and leaving villages with large numbers of "AIDS orphans."

The researchers interviewed 103 Chinese people living with HIV and 23 healthcare workers.

The experts from the ILO and China's National Center for STD and AIDS Prevention and Control found that patients had been refused care and discriminated against.

The results were announced at a press conference this week.

One HIV-positive man said he was refused care, with doctors citing a fear of cross-infection of other patients at one hospital.

A doctor in a second hospital said he "dared not" operate on the man because of his immunological status.

He said he had been turned away from "many" other hospitals with similar excuses.

UN estimates put the number of people in China living with HIV at around 740,000 in 2009.

However, health ministry officials say the true number of infections may be higher.

Of those confirmed cases, 105,000 patients have developed full-blown AIDS.

The report said that strong taboos around discussion of sex made wider education difficult.

But it warned that many HIV patients may simply avoid medical treatment as a result of the attitudes among healthcare workers.

In the early years of China's AIDS epidemic, health ministry officials focused on the threat of the disease coming to China from overseas.

Mandatory AIDS screening was in place for foreign students in China through the 1980s and 1990s.

However, HIV infections among intravenous drug users, especially in southwestern China, began to put paid to that theory by the mid-1990s.

HIV infections had been reported in all of China's cities, provinces and autonomous regions by 1998. Drug users accounted for 60-70% of newly reported infections.

By the turn of the century, HIV had become a topic for general debate and the subject of television documentary and drama.

The SARS epidemic of 2003, however, has been credited with a profound shift in attitude on the part of the health ministry, because the ministry came in for strong criticism for a lack of transparency and public information about SARS.

By 2003, the health minister had described the epidemic as a "long-term war" and requested a doubling of the budget to fight AIDS.

Premier Wen Jiabao was the first Chinese premier to shake hands with an HIV-infected person on Dec. 1, 2003.

However, the authorities continue to suppress public discussion of the role played by illegal blood-selling in poor farming communities.

The authorities pulled the plug on the website of an AIDS advocacy group after it published an open letter about the trade in blood plasma and its role in spreading the virus.

The website of the Beijing-based Aizhixing Research Foundation, at www.aizhi.net, said it received several requests to remove the letter, written last December by a former senior official in China's health ministry.

Veteran activists Gao Yaojie and Wan Yanhai—now both exiled in the United States—say that infections through tainted blood transfusions at local hospitals and clinics are a continuing scandal in poorer regions of China.

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