Stigma and Discrimination Fuel Spread of AIDS in China

ByABC News
January 23, 2007, 3:25 PM

Jan. 23, 2007— -- In recent years China has made bold strides in its response to HIV/AIDS. But until it owns up to past mistakes, encourages and supports civil society involvement, and proactively deals with the serious challenges of stigma and misinformation, cases of HIV and AIDS will continue to rise, giving truth to predictions that by 2010, China could be home to over 10 million infected with the disease.

After years of denial, China's leadership now serves as a model for the region, with Premier Wen Jiabao, President Hu Jintao and Vice Premier Madame Wu Yi all speaking out publicly and visibly on the AIDS emergency. Newly launched public service campaigns are attempting to increase awareness and slow the spread the disease. The Beijing government has initiated bold and creative programs to provide care and treatment. Innovative efforts from civil society and members of the private sector are beginning to fill in gaps that the government cannot, and new resources from public and private donors are supporting model programs for prevention, care, and treatment.

Yet there are warning signs that all is not well, and, in fact, that worse is yet to come. While it is true that there has been a quiet emergence of non governmental organizations (NGOs) in China, the ability of these NGOS and advocates associated with them to progress and develop has been less than successful, particularly in the area of HIV/AIDS. Last year for example, two prominent AIDS activists, Wan Yan Hai and Hu Jia, were each held separately for questioning. Mr. Wan was detained in advance of a conference he was organizing to help people infected with the disease their legal rights to treatment and non discrimination. Mr. Hu went missing after he and a group of others went on a hunger strike to protest government treatment of civil rights campaigner Yan Maodang.

As a recent article in the Economist points out, China's refusal to openly discuss and address the practice of selling (tainted) blood in Henan province is a building issue. In most cases, peasants were encouraged by local officials to sell their blood, but were not told of the enormous risk. There is evidence that this practice continued even as doctors and officials became aware of the problem.

Elizabeth Williams is the Acting Director for Asian Social Issues Programs at the Asia Society