Social problems of Aids face the government and the Church

Beijing launches crackdown on commercial blood-collection centers

Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) – A pickpocket attempted to avoid arrest by declaring that he is infected with Aids and showed a medical certificate to back his claim. This happened a few days ago in Xian (North West China) but was reported only yesterday by the state agency Xinhua. Two pickpockets tried to steal a mobile phone. The police intervened but spent an hour deciding what to do, for fear of the epidemic.

The incident is not an isolated case and it reveals that in China Aids is not only a health problem, but is also reflected dramatically in the society, above all in the ignorance of the population-even by those who have the disease- about Aids, because of the years of government denial and silence.

Wu Yi became the Minister Health after the SARS crisis, and has attempted to confront the spreading AIDS problem with more force. Last week, he started a nationwide campaign against official blood-collection centers that fail to comply with hygiene regulations. Santions were imposed against three blood centers for bad management and accepting blood from frequent donors.  Two of these centers, one in Xupu county and the other in Deqing county, have been closed down. The managers of a third center have been ordered to pay a fine. Since last April, health officials began offering free Aids testing to anyone who asks, and free treatment for infected people who cannot afford it.

Unfortunately, Beijing has not completely renounced its totalitarian habits of hiding mistakes  and negligence of the past. While the Minister of Health was announcing the campaign, 30 year-old Aids activist, Hui Jia, said authorities have placed him under house arrest to prevent him from meeting an American delegation which would be visiting the Henan province. This province has one of the world's highest percentages of Aids infection. Tens of thousands of people were infected there in the 1990s because of an unsanitary blood-buying industry, and in some villages nearly every family has a member infected with the virus. Since 1995, the central government has moved to crack down on profit-oriented blood centres. They have been blamed for contaminating blood supplies and worsening the Aids epidemic in central regions. Chinese authorities tried to replace these centers with non-profit-making ones. Unfortunately, these efforts have failed to stop people from selling their blood: last month Vice-Minister of Health Zhu Qingsheng declared at a conference in Beijing that 20 per cent of the nation's blood was still obtained through sales. Chinese regulations state that donors must wait 15 days before they can give blood again, and blood centers can only collect blood from local residents. Nevertheless, frequent donors often escape regulations by giving blood using different names. In the Deqing county, the local blood centre allowed many migrant workers to sell blood every 3-5 days.

China also suffers from a lack of medicine, trained medical staff, and other means to cure the infection. According to government statistics, in China there are less than 150 doctors qualified to diagnose and treat AIDS patients. For Zhang Fujie, of the National Center for Control and Prevention of AIDS/STD (sexually transmitted diseases), the shortage of qualified doctors forces about 25 percent of the AIDS patients receiving free state drugs to quit the treatments, which must be administered and monitored by professionals because of the strong side effects it causes.

The Church is aware of the situation and recently the Chinese Catholic Church decided to make her contribution to the battle against Aids. The Church 5 nuns, a priest and a layman from the Liaoning Diocese to Thailand for a training program organised by the local Church. The group returned to China in March. They are trying to open a hospital and to set up a hospice for people who are terminally ill 

Based on official statistics, there are 840,000 HIV-positive people in China, including 80,000 who have full-blown Aids. International experts say the number is much higher however. The disease is spreading at a growing rate of 30 per cent per year, the fastest growing rate in the world. The United Nations agency UNAIDS affirms that without an efficacious intervention, by 2010 there could be 10 million people infected and 260 thousand Aids orphans.