China’s AIDS Crisis

It is rare for a foreign doctor to get to China’s rural areas, where its AIDS epidemic was born and takes a horrible toll. But recently, two nurses and I ventured into a poor farming area, Nizui in Hubei Province, as part of a Medecins Sans Frontières(MSF) team to visit the Liu family and evaluate their 7-month-old baby. The child was the size of a two month old, but his eyes held the gaze of an 80-year-old man long acquainted with extreme suffering. The baby was dying of AIDS. His parents, aunts, and uncles were also HIV-positive.

The Liu family is one of thousands of poor farming families in China’s interior who contracted HIV through contaminated blood donations during the 1990’s, when under-regulated for-profit blood banking companies reused needles and transferred blood from infected donors to clean donors after extracting the plasma.

The Chinese Health Ministry recently put the total number of HIV/AIDS cases at 840,000, although most experts believe that the true number is much higher. Some believe that by 2010, the number of infected Chinese may reach 10 million.

After years of taking a passive, low-profile approach to the epidemic, health officials have stepped up their anti-HIV campaign. Since 80% of HIV/AIDS patients reside in the countryside, greater access to health care in these areas has become a priority. This past July, during the highly publicized 15th International AIDS Conference in Bangkok, Premier Wen Jiabao declared all-out war against the burgeoning epidemic. Earlier this year, the government promised blood-products screening, free voluntary HIV testing, and free medicine for the poor.