Wed, Aug 23, 2006 - Page 9 News List

AIDS victims in PRC suffer alone

With the most basic of government support and a world that doesn't seem to care at all, many of those enduring this often-terminal disease in China risk starving to death


Every day without fail, Cao Xiaoxian goes to a local government office, as he has for a year, to beg for help for his family.

His face drawn and tired, the 34-year-old has no choice -- he has AIDS, and so has his wife and his 11-year-old son.

The only one who may not infected with HIV, the virus that causes the disease, is his nine-month-old baby daughter, but she is too young for a definitive test.

"This morning I went [to the government office] again. They told me the central government didn't give any instructions about which family should get help and which would not," Cao says.

He was infected when he sold his blood to government blood stations collecting plasma to make blood products, as many farmers in central China do to help eke out a living.

Cao had to give up his part-time job as a delivery truck driver because the disease and the antiretroviral drugs he is taking leave him too weak to work.

"If he does any hard labor, he gets a fever," says his wife Zhou Xiaoneng, also 34.

Without any means of income, the couple live off their land and sometimes the generosity of donors.

To save money, they rarely eat meat, do not have a telephone and do not use the fan even in the hot summer, turning it on only briefly when guests visit.

"We have no money to even buy candy for our kids," Zhou says.

Barely surviving

The family is no exception. Many other families with several members suffering from the deadly disease barely manage to survive.

Although billions of dollars is being spent on life-saving AIDS drugs across the world, donor governments are failing to ensure developing world patients have adequate diets, the UN World Food Program (WFP) warned last week at the 16th International AIDS Conference in Toronto.

The WFP joined the non-governmental organization Partners in Health here to say that people getting antiretroviral therapies were much more likely to die if they were undernourished.

They nutrition programs for HIV patients were critically underfunded, even though a lack of food was often cited by people living with the disease, most of them in developing nations, as the most urgent need.

Although China has been praised for launching a program to provide HIV-positive citizens with free drugs in 2003, it provides very little else, even for people like Cao who were victims of an unsanitary government-approved scheme to encourage poor farmers to sell blood beginning in the 1980s.

Families with AIDS receive a stipend of just 12 yuan (US$1.50) per person for month, but not everyone gets the money as some corrupt local officials have been known to siphon off funds, volunteers in villages with a high number of AIDS sufferers say.

Babies receive milk powder and children who have AIDS or whose parents have AIDS are supposed to get free tuition, but some people receive only a waiver for a part of their tuition.

No backup

An AIDS patient in another village, Qiudian, says she does not know how she and her husband will be able to put their teenage daughter through high school.

"If she doesn't get a scholarship, she will have to drop out of school," says Cheng Xiaolan, 38.

In Cheng's home, a brand-new washing machine which was part of her wedding dowry years ago, sits covered in the cardboard box it came in. The family no longer uses it because they need to save on the electricity bill.

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