Facing AIDS in China

Nov 112003
Authors: Meg Burd

“We are now witnessing the unfolding of an AIDS epidemic of

proportions beyond belief,” the United Nations said in a recent

report on China and of the growing problem of HIV/AIDS in the

nation. China, continues the report, is “on the verge of a

catastrophe that could result in unimaginable suffering, economic

loss and social devastation.”

A dire prediction, the report’s words ring even more true when

the statistics on AIDS and the tragedy it is causing and predicted

to cause in the future of China are presented. With the United

Nations reporting a current 1.5 million HIV carriers, doctors warn

that this number could reach 10 million by 2010 if education and

preventative programs are not immediately and effectively put in


“China is facing a decisive moment,” says U.N. Secretary General

Kofi Annan.

In rural villages of China, such as one profiled in a report by

the BBC, experts warn that the devastation there is only “in its

infancy.” Mrs. Hu, a villager whose sons have been stricken by

AIDS, says they were infected when they sold their plasma to a

government-run clinic. A quick way to make some much-needed money,

the needles were unsanitary and spread the disease to her boys.

(This, according to officials and AIDS activists in China, is one

of the most common ways the epidemic has been spread.)

Mrs. Hu now is facing even greater financial devastation as she

treats her boys with expensive glucose drips and aspirin. With only

a rudimentary understanding of the disease and no access to

anti-AIDS drugs, Mrs. Hu is not only watching her sons die, but

also watching her family slide further into economic


Cases like this are prevalent all through China. Although most

cases of HIV in China are a found in intravenous drug user

populations or those infected by buying or selling tainted blood

from commercial blood banks, the numbers of “heterosexually

transmitted HIV epidemics” (according to the U.N. report) are

rising, too.

Hit hard as well have been the children born to infected

parents. Agence France-Presse, citing a recent report, says that

out of 143 HIV carriers, 17 percent were children under five years

old. The number of AIDS orphans likewise continues to grow, with

estimates of hundreds of thousands of children facing life without

parents if current trends continue.

China, it can be seen, is facing a long and difficult crisis.

Certainly the first thing needed is for the government to stop

denying the presence of disease and actively pursuing programs that

will stop this terrible tidal wave of HIV/AIDS. Officials and

doctors agree that education, treatment and care are essential to

slowing the spread of AIDS worldwide. As we can see in our own

community, education plays a major part in preventing not only the

spread, but also the stigma associated with getting tested for the

disease. AIDS awareness tables and groups are common features on

campus, and are vital in spreading important messages in a way that

China has not yet adopted.

This so far has not been an easy process in China. Activists

have been imprisoned and community groups shut down for spreading

data about government blood banks and their connection to the

spread of AIDS. Likewise, some programs are finding their ability

to have frank discussions about the way AIDS can be sexually

transmitted difficult in some areas where talk about sex in public

is taboo.

These obstacles, however, must be overcome if China is to slow

the devastating wave of disease that is now sweeping the nation.

One positive note is that the government recently learned from the

SARS crisis how to more effectively respond to epidemics, and it is

hoped that these lessons can help China deal with AIDS as well.

As Annan said, “Clearly, China has everything to gain if it can

stem the tide of the AIDS epidemic and everything to lose if it


“Silence,” he rightly cautions, “is death.”

Meg is a graduate student studying anthropology. Her column runs

every Wednesday.




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