Activists were skeptical of a pledge by China’s government a day before World AIDS Day to fight discrimination against people with the disease, saying yesterday the move would mean little without improvements in education to increase awareness and alter mindsets.
Health authorities and the UN AIDS agency pledged on Sunday to combat the stigmatization of people with the disease by unveiling a massive red ribbon, the symbol of AIDS awareness, at the Olympic Bird’s Nest stadium in Beijing. In addition, Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) visited AIDS patients yesterday.
The Chinese Health Ministry said in a statement yesterday that the government would strengthen efforts in education on AIDS prevention and to fight discrimination, while also stepping up condom distribution and outreach to high-risk groups such as prostitutes and homosexual men. It did not give specifics.
Activists said they were not optimistic the move would produce results in a country where the topic of AIDS still remains very politically sensitive.
“I support the idea that they are trying to end AIDS discrimination, but unfortunately, that is not the reality,” said Li Fangping (李方平), a lawyer and AIDS activist. “People with AIDS are constantly denied treatment in hospitals and have died because of this reason.”
AIDS activist Li Dan (李丹), director of the China Orchid AIDS Project, said community education and involvement were needed to fight the stigma attached to the disease.
“People are still afraid of putting their children into schools with kids who have AIDS and AIDS is still related back to people who do drugs,” Li said.
The HIV virus that causes AIDS gained a foothold in China largely because of unsanitary blood plasma-buying schemes and tainted transfusions in hospitals. Last year, health authorities said sex had overtaken drug use as the main cause of HIV infections.
After years of denying that AIDS was a problem, Chinese leaders have shifted gears in recent years, confronting the disease more openly and promising anonymous testing, free treatment for the poor and a ban on discrimination against people with the virus. But the government regularly cracks down on activists and patients seeking more support and rights.
The Health Ministry and UNAIDS unveiled a 20m by 15m banner on Sunday with the red AIDS awareness ribbon printed on it at the Bird’s Nest stadium, a main Olympic venue.
But in the weeks ahead of the Olympic Games in August, authorities put dozens of AIDS activists under house arrest or surveillance to clear the city of dissent while it played host to the competition.
Official estimates put the number of people living with HIV in China at about 700,000, with around 85,000 people with full-blown AIDS, UNAIDS said. But the number of officially reported HIV cases is far lower at 264,302, in part because of reluctance to seek testing.
Hu went to a hospital in Beijing to see the patients.
“Stigma and discrimination are major obstacles in an effective response to AIDS,” Chinese Health Minister Chen Zhu (陳竺) was quoted as saying at the launch of the campaign at the Bird’s Nest. “We need to engage all sectors of society in China to combat these issues and work to stop the disease.”
Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) also visited AIDS patients in Anhui Province on Sunday, telling them that fighting the disease was a government priority, Xinhua news agency reported.