Progress and Shortcomings in China's Fight Against AIDS

Today marks the 23rd World AIDS Day, and a special page from the China Daily website provides a synopsis of the battle against AIDS in the mainland, lauding the progress that has been made. The page provides statistics, charts, inspiring photos of young AIDS activists and explanations of the Party’s support for those afflicted by the disease:

China will further expand testing and intervention efforts, including education and drug coverage, said the country’s 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-15) for HIV/AIDS prevention and control.

[...]China’s infection rate overall is 0.06 percent. The WHO defines high prevalence as 1 percent or more.

[...]Chinese scientists have succeeded in the first phase of a clinical trial of an HIV vaccine and will launch the second stage in a few months.

However, today is not simply a day to celebrate the progress made in the battle against AIDS, but also a day for raising awareness of the AIDS pandemic and the way HIV infection effects people’s health and political status. From the official World AIDS Day website:

World AIDS Day is held on 1 December each year and is an opportunity for people worldwide to unite in the fight against HIV, show their support for people living with HIV and to commemorate people who have died. World AIDS Day was the first ever global health day and the first one was held in 1988.

[...]Today, many scientific advances have been made in HIV treatment, there are laws to protect people living with HIV and we understand so much more about the condition. But despite this, people do not know the facts about how to protect themselves and others from HIV, and stigma and discrimination remain a reality for many people living with HIV. World AIDS Day is important as it reminds the public and Government that HIV has not gone away – there is still a vital need to raise money, increase awareness, fight prejudice and improve education.

An opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal acknowledges China’s progress in this on-going battle, but also brings attention to the realities of life for victims of HIV/AIDS:

Although the new five-year Action AIDS Plan and the 2006 Regulations on AIDS say that people with HIV should have rights, there are no national laws prohibiting discrimination. Indeed, in some provinces it is illegal to hire people with HIV/AIDS for work that involves handling food, or to allow them to use a public swimming pool. Schools are free to openly refuse children whose parents are living with HIV/AIDS.

[...]Institutionalized discrimination drives people living with HIV/AIDS underground, spreads the virus more quickly, and makes many people fearful to even take an HIV test. This makes educating the public and tackling discrimination not only a matter of human rights, but also a public health imperative.

[...]Every country in the world faced the same challenges in the early stages of the epidemic. China has taken great steps forward in acknowledging and beginning to fight HIV/AIDS. But until people living with HIV/AIDS can come out from underground, the epidemic will take many more lives.

And it is not only foreign media focusing on China’s need to create a non-discriminatory environment for HIV/AIDS victims. In contrast to the China Daily page mentioned above, see this article from the Global Times:

Although there is still a long way to go in the medical fight against HIV/AIDS, it is this social discrimination that is most pressing, particularly in countries such as China where stigmas associated with HIV/AIDS are still rife.

It is even more distressing to see these prejudices within the medical profession. There have been reports even in recent years of hospitals and doctors refusing to treat or operate on patients with HIV/AIDS, sometimes leading to prolonged suffering and deaths. Hospitals that are supposedly “designated” for HIV/AIDS patients very rarely have the ability to treat anything other than HIV-related illnesses, while other mainstream hospitals seem to fear infection. It is ludicrous for anyone who is medically trained to have an attitude like this regarding HIV/AIDS. The risk of infection is minimal if proper procedures are followed.

[...]The right treatment is there, but people need to feel comfortable seeking treatment, afforded the respect they deserve, and given treatment that works. Despite some of Beijing’s efforts to make the necessary changes, HIV/AIDS-related deaths will continue to remain at an unacceptable level unless attitudes change.

And though China seems to recognize just how far there is left to go in this difficult battle, there is still little willingness to acknowledge the government’s role in spreading the disease during blood drives in the 1990′s. 79-year-old former health official Chen Bingzhong has penned a third open letter to Hu Jintao describing the state’s role in covering up the Henan blood scandal. NTD Television provides video coverage and a brief interview with Chen:

[Chen Bingzhong, AIDS Activist]:
“As a health worker I have a responsibility to be the voice for these victims, otherwise I would be incompetent. Regardless of how much I’m threatened I won’t stand down. A few days ago, Beijing police called me and tried to pressure me. I said ‘I won’t back down.’ I’m near my days anyway, and I want my death to be meaningful.”

The Chinese regime has stepped up the campaign against HIV and AIDS in recent years, as reported cases continue to grow. Authorities have never publicly addressed the Henan blood scandal though, instead, they blame unprotected sex as the major contributor for the outbreak.

A letter from US Ambassador to China Gary Locke was published today in China Daily, stating that the US and China stand together in the fight against AIDS. Also see this NBC Photoblog post for photojournalistic coverage.