China acknowledges AIDS problem, seeks West's help to combat disease

November 18, 1990|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Beijing Bureau of The Sun

BEIJING -- China, which as recently as last spring was blaming AIDS on "the rotten mentality and lifestyle of capitalist society," has begun to acknowledge its own AIDS problem and is seeking the West's help to combat the feared spread of the fatal disease here.

"We have an AIDS problem that has a very dangerous potential to expand," Minister of Public Health Chen Minzhang said in an interview at a recent international symposium bringing together Chinese health workers with Americans and Canadians who work with AIDS patients.

Last month, China reported for the first time that two Chinese had died earlier this year of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. The Health Ministry also said that since 1985, China had identified 446 AIDS virus carriers, 68 of them foreigners.

All but 10 of the Chinese AIDS virus cases are located in southwestern Yunnan Province and stemmed from intravenous drug use, officials said. Yunnan -- along a transportation route to Hong Kong for heroin and opium from the "Golden Triangle" of Burma, Laos and Thailand -- has suffered from a rapidly growing drug problem.

Chinese health officials also said that China, which had virtually eliminated venereal disease before the 1980s, now has VD rates in some areas exceeding 300 cases per 100,000 persons, rates matching those of some Western countries.

The actual incidence of both AIDS virus carriers and venereal disease in China is almost certainly higher than the reported rates because of the nation's limited testing effort to date, an effort mainly aimed at long-term foreign residents and Chinese drug users, Chinese health officials acknowledged.

The Chinese health officials were speaking at an AIDS conference sponsored by the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences and People to People International, a private, Spokane, Washington-based program that promotes international cooperation. About 140 North American AIDS workers participated in the program at the invitation of the Chinese. The request for grass-roots help from Western experts represents a big step for China which at times has cited the AIDS epidemic in the West as part of its anti-Western, xenophobic political campaigns.

In a corner of Beijing's Forbidden City last spring, for instance, an AIDS exhibition told visitors: "In recent years, following the increase of international exchange and the development of tourism, the rotten mentality and lifestyle of capitalist society has taken the opportunity to penetrate Chinese society." That view of AIDS still lingers in some quarters, but on the first day of the conference many Chinese health officials appeared to be eager to learn about AIDS education and patient-care practices developed in the West. At the same time, some of the North American AIDS workers said they were interested in ways in which Chinese traditional medicine might be used to fight AIDS or at least to help people with AIDS cope with the disease.

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