AIDS In China

Years ago, AIDS was a feared and misunderstood disease. Barry Petersen reports on China's struggle to accept its infected citizens and shows how far they've come.
I'm Barry Petersen and this Letter from Asia comes from Beijing. The history of AIDS starts with neglect. The first case in the mid 1980s was a tourist from Argentina, and officials here proclaimed that AIDS was a foreigner's disease. Of course, they were horribly wrong.

Harvard-educated Professor Jing Jun is a sociologist who tracked AIDS from China's initial reaction: denial. He told me that in China's culture, when it was about sex, ignorance was bliss. "A lot of Chinese parents do not want their children to be aware of sexuality so early because they... Believe that if they know about it, they might do it," says Jun.

The battle against AIDS was also complicated by China's push for rapid growth, which made medical care, once open to all, part of the new make-money model. "We try to follow the U.S. Medical model," says Jing. "In other words, doctors should make money. Medical institutions should make money. So all of a sudden, the cost of medicine went up so fast that 50 percent of rural people cannot afford to be hospitalized anymore."

Then China turned to its rural population for blood supplies, afraid that foreign blood was tainted. But blood donations in villages were mixed together basically in big pots. After plasma was extracted, the unneeded and sometimes contaminated red-cells were injected back into groups of donors. "The ten people, if one person has HIV-AIDS, the other nine people get it," says Jing.

The wake-up call was SARS. China virtually shut down in fear as it spread. Suddenly, this country realized that in a global world, borders are not barriers to disease. "In people's living memory, there hadn't been a single disease that stopped work nationwide in China - never," says Jing.

China has changed; These days, an openly gay TV show can be streamed on the internet. There is a focus on preventing AIDS with education and treatment for drug users. But most important, says Professor Jing, people with AIDS no longer face a stigma that once stopped many from even seeking help. "You can't categorize these people as bad people anymore," says Jing. "I think it's very good for the prevention strategies."

China is not unique in first ignoring AIDS, nor is it a leader in prevention - at least not yet. But the good news is that times are finally changing - and for the better.
By Barry Petersen