Gao wasn't the only one targeted. The government detained and threatened foreign reporters who went to Henan. They blocked Chinese researchers who tried to test villagers for HIV. Local officials feared that if news got out, it would provoke fear and scare off investment.
They were probably right.
Last year, rumors circulated in Henan that an infected villager had injected his blood into watermelons and another into pork to poison others. Although the claims were apparently false, they resonated in rural China, where ignorance abounds and the government jealously guards information.
It didn't have to be this way. AIDS surfaced in China in 1985, and the regime has had time to educate people. Instead, it has missed opportunities to develop public understanding of the disease.
In 1998, a teen-ager named Song Pengfei contracted HIV through a blood transfusion and made the brave decision to speak publicly about the taboo subject.
The next year, Song went to a conference in Malaysia where he publicly contradicted China's vice minister for health, who claimed the government was doing a great deal to help AIDS patients.
Chinese officials were furious. In a nation that places enormous emphasis on face, such temerity was unforgivable. Song soon disappeared from the pages of China's state-owned newspapers.
That same year, the government-owned network, China Central Television, which reaches hundreds of millions of viewers, began airing public service announcements urging people to use condoms to prevent the spread of disease. The State Administration for Industry and Commerce, however, quickly banned the ads, saying they violated a law prohibiting the advertising of sex-related products.
Although the case in Henan has received press attention overseas, China's AIDS problem is complex and extensive. While sexual transmission is growing because of endemic prostitution, officials estimate that intravenous drug use still accounts for nearly 70 percent of HIV infection nationwide.
The government says some of the hardest hit areas run along drug transport lines in border provinces such as Xinjiang in the country's far northwest and Yunnan in the southwest. Chris Beyrer, an epidemiologist with the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, tracked AIDS along heroin routes from Myanmar (formerly Burma) into Yunnan and from Vietnam into China's Guangxi Province. His study found that addicts in Guangxi crossed into Vietnam where they bought drugs, shared needles and then brought back HIV.
Given China's opaque political system and the country's sheer size, it is impossible to know the dimension of the current AIDS problem. It will probably take many years before the extent of the damage becomes clear.
Ma and Zhou, a young husband and wife from Henan, are already feeling the ripple effects of the disease. On Wednesday, they spent half their monthly salary - about $100 - on overnight train tickets to Beijing to find better medicine for their 5-year-old daughter, who contracted HIV during a blood transfusion several years ago.
This April, the girl developed a steady fever and ulcers around her mouth. In June, the couple read about a blood transfusion-related AIDS case and had her tested.
The family does not know where the tainted blood came from, but they say the hospital collected it locally. Since the symptoms first emerged, the girl has lost 13 pounds. Her legs are spindly and her face pallid. The couple is now suing the hospital while trying to keep the illness a secret.
If word spreads, they are certain they will lose their jobs and their apartment because fellow workers and neighbors will fear getting the disease.
"Nobody knows yet," said Ma, 31, who declined to give his full name. "But if somebody finds out, we will have to leave our home."