Sat, Jul 10, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Doctors, dogmas and drugs are part of China's AIDS problem

By Tan Ee Lyn  /  REUTERS , Hong Kong

China belatedly acknowledged the country's exploding HIV-AIDS problem when Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) shook hands with a victim last year, but there is still a long way to go before the deadly virus can be countered.

Arthur Pang (彭偉強), a doctor with humanitarian group Medecins Sans Frontieres and who treated AIDS patients in Hubei Province this year, said expensive drugs and the stigma associated with the disease were still keeping sufferers from the treatment they needed.

"Wen Jiabao may have shaken hands with an AIDS patient, but it will take a long time to get the awareness down to the ground," Pang said in an interview.

Pang, who treated some 150 Chinese patients from last December to last month in an AIDS treatment clinic in Xiangfan City, said Chinese doctors and nurses he worked with had little or no knowledge of the disease.

"At first they donned full gear, like the way they would with SARS patients," Pang said. "Many of them are very scared, they think they may be infected simply by touching."

"Once a patient is confirmed with the disease, they will send the person to an infectious disease hospital, they don't want to touch them. They don't want to deal with AIDS patients," he said.

That attitude began to change at the Xiangfan clinic when staff observed the way Pang worked, and saw that such precautions were unnecessary.

STIGMA AND FEAR

But while attitudes among healthcare workers may be changing, ignorance and fear among the populace is a serious problem.

Those with disease symptoms who suspect they may be infected with HIV do not seek help for fear of being stigmatized by their friends and family, or even sacked by their employers. There is also widespread ignorance that drugs can be used to treat the disease, Pang said.

He recalled a heart-wrenching case of a 29-year-old farmer who could not even stay to have his blood tested because he had to catch the last bus ride home.

The farmer contracted the disease selling blood. He tried to resist being hospitalized for fear nobody would take care of him after his family ran away. He died in hospital in May.

"Some are just too poor, they may even have to borrow money to get to the clinic some three to four hours away from their farms. Sixty or 70 percent of the people who sought treatment at our clinic already had full-blown AIDS," Pang said.

Although China has an estimated 1 million to 1.5 million HIV-AIDS cases, it is ranked alongside India and Russia as countries most at risk from AIDS outside Africa. Health agencies say China could have 10 million victims by 2010 if it fails to take the threat seriously.

Activists hope the world's attention will focus on the epidemic again when experts gather for an international meeting next week in Bangkok.

For years, China has faced international condemnation for disguising the scale of its AIDS epidemic, neglecting patients and arresting activists and journalists.

But last year, Wen became the first Chinese leader to shake hands with an AIDS patient and the government then sent health workers to Henan Province where many villages were hit by botched blood-selling schemes in the 1990s.

Hubei is just south of Henan, where activists estimate that more than 1 million people are infected.

The disease spread there after clinics offered to pay farmers for blood. Plasma was extracted from the donor's blood and then the farmers were reinjected with blood from a pool of donors that was unwittingly infected with the HIV virus.

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