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WHO's AIDS focus misses China
By Iris Tsang

HONG KONG - Today nothing obsesses the World Heath Organization (WHO) more than the global AIDS plague, and with good reason. The latest report, ringing the alarm of a "global health emergency", says millions of sufferers receive no treatment at all. With its hands full in Africa alone, the organization hardly spares a minute to glimpse China.

"To deliver antiretroviral treatment to the millions who need it, we must change the way we think and change the way we act," Dr Lee Jong-wook, director general of the Geneva-based health body, told a high-level meeting Monday, during the UN General Assembly, on AIDS and the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes it . "Business as usual will not work. Business as usual means watching thousands of people die every single day."

WHO and the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) are also renewing their commitment to meeting an ambitious "3 by 5" target: providing antiretroviral medicines to 3 million people by the end of 2005.

According to WHO statistics, some 6 million people in developing countries have HIV infections that require antiretroviral treatment. But fewer than 300,000 are being treated. In sub-Saharan Africa, where most of the people in need of treatment live, only about 50,000 are receiving it.

It is only natural for the health body to address the problem that HIV/AIDS victims do not receive proper treatment, since one of its responsibilities is to promote the health status of human beings. Yet, based on the contents of its statement and other relevant reports, the WHO seems to place top priority on Africa and turns a blind eye to the impact of this epidemic on Asia, especially China, the world's most populous country, with millions of HIV/AIDS patients.

Let there be no doubt, AIDS is spreading across the continent of Africa with significant momentum. Nonetheless, China's own problem also demands attention and effort. According to experts, several million Chinese infected with HIV do not receive proper treatment, which endangers their own lives and their families' as well.

China's most HIV-affected region is Henan province in the central of the country. Henan has a population of closed to 100 million, the greatest of any province in China. It also has the largest number of HIV/AIDS sufferers. The authorities put the number of Henan residents infected with HIV at 370,000, but independent sources put the figure much higher.

One thing contributes much to such a devastating situation: unsafe blood-selling practices. Before 1998, selling blood for money was legal in China. Since many rural Henan residents could not make a living from their harvests, they resorted to selling their blood. In most cases, the equipment used in the transfusion process was not thoroughly sterilized and a small proportion of transfused blood could reflow into the body, leading to cross-infection among the blood-sellers and increasing the spread of HIV.

Dr Gao Yaojie, a pioneer in China's campaign against AIDS, claimed as early as 2001 that in Henan's Shangcai county alone, the number of HIV carriers was not less than 10,000. This was only the number recognized by local officials, and it is hard to estimate the total number for the whole province.

Gao called Shangcai the "county of AIDS", but the situation in nearby Xincai county is much worse. In addition, other places like Zhoukou, Nanyang, Xinyang, Kaifeng, Shangqiu, Luohe, Xuchang, Pingdingshan and Hebi witness the same situation. "I suppose not a region in the province is AIDS-free," remarked Gao.

Even though not every county in Henan is as unfortunate as Shangcai and Xincai, the situation is gloomy. Besides Henan, provinces such as Guizhou, Yunnan, Guangdong, and Guangxi have been plagued with the same headache.

Moreover, for many years Beijing has been unwilling to release accurate statistics on the spread of HIV/AIDS or carry out strict supervision, according to some AIDS experts. In light of that, leaders in some AIDS-stricken regions try to conceal the truth instead of taking effective actions. Thus the official number of HIV/AIDS patients is deemed conservative.

On the other hand, monetary injection on health care does not accord with sustaining economic growth. Consequently urban AIDS institutions are hindered by a lack of funds and rural public facilities offer almost no AIDS-related health care. Private facilities are not capable of dealing with AIDS on their own, and the few that are capable are open to the rich only.

Since last year, AIDS funding from Beijing has jumped from 15 million to 100 million yuan (US$12.1 million); a special allocation of 22 million yuan for three consecutive years will be put into treatment of HIV/AIDS patients in Henan and other regions where the infection is rampant. Even though the sum seems a drop in the ocean, it's better than nothing.

To trust or not to trust China's official data of AIDS patients is an issue for the WHO, while the task of getting serious about eradicating the disease once and for all is China's.

(Copyright 2003 Asia Times Online Co, Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact for information on our sales and syndication policies.)
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