AIDS in Henan province: The more things change….

When I lived in China, the post I wrote that got me the most links was an examination of AIDS, especially the horrors of the Henan province epdidemic, a crime that makes the SARS coverup look insignificant.

For a long time, it was the topic I covered the most. Not so much anymore, because I got numb to it. Back in 2003 there was a huge upsurge of hope when Bill Cinton and Dr. Ho went to Beijing and campaigned to raise AIDS awareness (though the Chinese media declined to cover their press conference, no doubt because more pressing issues loomed, like Hu visiting a factory somewhere).

The hopes soon fizzled as reports showed little actual progress. Yes, there were more public awareness campaigns, which are great, and condoms became more ubiquitous than ever. But it was so little and it was so late, and even now AIDS victims live under an unimaginable stigma.

Henan province remains the epicenter of the catastrophe thanks to the local officals who made the epidemic possible, covered it up and profited from it. There, progress is almost nil.

In a recent meeting with UN officials, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao said on the subject of AIDS that the Chinese government is “determined and capable of curbing the spread of the disease, to ensure the people live a healthy and peaceful life.” But in Henan, the region of China where AIDS exploded, the old habit of secrecy still rules.

With Beijing drastically underreporting the extent of the disease and resisting foreign help to fight it, thousands of infected Chinese are being left to further spread the virus and die unattended. Despite the public revelations of mass infections through contaminated blood, Henan residents continue to practice unprotected sex and send migrant workers to China’s booming coastal region….

What has changed in Henan since 2003? Unfortunately, not enough. Even the number of contaminated peasants remains unknown. The ministry of health in Beijing laughs at Henan’s official tally of 22,000. Dr. Zheng Ke, one of the Chinese doctors with the best field experience in Henan, puts the estimate at 300,000; others speculate the figure is closer to 500,000 or even a million.

Officially, the government has started distributing free antiretrovirals, the treatment that can stop the progress of the disease. The leadership has granted free education for children of AIDS patients and help for their communities. In reality, these treatments have been inadequate; a majority of patients rejected them because of side effects, while others have been trying all kinds of medicine, including experiments from Chinese army research centers. Many have opted against treatment altogether – and anxiously wait for their death. Worse, some were abandoned, like one man I met who was clearly developing the disease and who had been left waiting for a month for the results of his blood test. In dozens of interviews last year, I did not meet a single patient who was correctly treated.

This medical chaos would be enough to justify outside assistance. But Henan authorities are adamant not to allow any outside presence. When I travelled to the AIDS villages last year, I had to arrive at midnight and leave before daybreak to avoid the militias formed to stop journalists and nongovernmental organizations, both Chinese and foreign, from visiting AIDS patients. Chinese NGOs trying to organize orphanages for the thousands of Henan children who have already lost their parents have been violently chased from the province and their institutions closed.

Occasionally we see upbeat success stories but they need to be placed in context. A model city for AIDS patients, while a positive sign, doesn’t really mean much when you are on the verge of becoming the next Africa and the victims are treated worse than lepers.

Books are waiting to be written about what’s happened in Henan province, and it’s got all the makings of a best seller: cover-up and conspiracy, mass infection with a lethal pathogen, corrupt offials profiting from the death they created, and immeasurable human suffering. And if anything there has changed in recent years, it’s only because the situation has become worse.

The Discussion: 5 Comments

Have you been to Zhengzhou? The area around the train station is like a giant truck stop. On one street there’s about 15 sex shops, turn the corner and there’s porn DVDs on the street. Turn the corner yet again to make your way back to the station and there’s half a mile of brothels with a hooker at seated at the door who pops up, strikes an seductive pose and even beckons laowai with a very friendly “Hello.”
That in itself is not a sign of a problem. However, given the AIDS problem AND the ability of the government to just shut it down at any time- it’s quite shocking.

July 7, 2005 @ 11:02 pm | Comment

Haski, the author of the article has written a French book about the situation in Henan. “Le Sang de la Chine” I havent read it yet.
I would be interested to hear more about the government`s Sunshine Centres, which were announced to some fanfare last year? or the year before, not sure. Official orphanges specifically for Aids orphans… But perhaps they caught on that in actual fact these were little more than re emphasising stigma and so hushed them up again.
I think there are still some valuable NGOs working in Henan though..

July 8, 2005 @ 3:54 am | Comment

Jim Yardley reports on one town’s efforts…

July 8, 2005 @ 9:57 am | Comment

Laowai, I already linked to your post about this in my post above! It is a very good example of one of the feel-good stories that, unfortunately, is highly unrepresentative of the actual situation on the ground. I agree, it’s positive news and needs to be covered, But in the context of the national catastrophe, it is of little significance — unless it’s used as a model for change elsewhere. The jury’s still out; as the reporter above says, nearly all of the Henan victims languish in the same misery as they did in the 90s.

July 8, 2005 @ 10:04 am | Comment

Oops – my sincere apologies. I’m color blind, so sometimes (well, often) I don’t notice your links because black and red are too similar to me.

anyway, I agree, basically, that it’s just a feel-good story until they base a model on it or something.

July 8, 2005 @ 10:10 am | Comment

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