China contemplates AIDS

Epidemic: Suppressing the evidence and squelching alarms has made it much worse.

September 03, 2001

UNTIL last month, the world's most populous and economically dynamic country thought the way to combat AIDS was to deny its prevalence. Many Chinese will die for that. Then, on Aug. 23, Deputy Health Minister Yin Dakui held a press conference on the subject, China's first, admitting that a serious epidemic has not been effectively addressed.

The admission is that 67.4 percent more HIV infections were reported in the first six months of this year than last, and that 5 percent of drug users are infected compared with 0.5 percent in 1995.

Shattering as this admission is, it still contains denial. Mr. Yin estimates 600,000 Chinese were infected with HIV at the end of 2000, heading to 1.5 million by 2010 if nothing is done. A recent U.N. report puts those figures at one million and 20 million.

The improved candor is a tribute to one courageous physician, Gao Yaojie. The 74-year-old gynecologist discovered in 1996 that poor farmers in Henan province were infected by selling blood repeatedly to government-sanctioned collection stations that injected pooled blood back. She was muzzled, harassed, threatened and denied travel by officials, some of whom profited from the unsanitary blood collection for the private pharmaceutical industry.

Even now, official China wants to believe that AIDS comes mostly from drug users along the import routes from Southeast Asia. It has done the most study of them.

A U.S. expert, Helene Gayle of the Centers for Disease Control, points to the sharp increase in sexually transmitted diseases and prostitution in China. Education is hampered because sex has become freer than discussion of it.

But the path of infection that Dr. Gao discovered is peculiarly Chinese. Poor rural people sell blood monthly or weekly to support families. Whole villages do it.

Like the scandal of children forced to manufacture fireworks in school as the only way to pay teachers, this was perpetuated by denial, and curtailed only when speech became freer.

China's government, desperate to remain a monolith while opening the economy, is fighting the wrong dragons. It is too busy muzzling dissidents, religion and movements like Falun Gong. If it wants to curb AIDS, it needs freer speech, more whistle blowers, official candor and war on corruption.

China has the means to join Brazil and Uganda among the Third World countries that combat AIDS best. It needs the will.

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