New York Times (09.16.01) - Monday, September 17, 2001
Shen Jieyong was happy to buy his pregnant wife transfusions
when she returned to their rural hometown to give birth in
1988. "Our home village is poor, so for my wife to receive
transfusions seemed like a kind of honor...," he said. But the
transfusions were unscreened for infectious diseases and were
purchased off the street from someone paid to donate.
Last November, Ms. Chen died of AIDS. Since then Mr. Shen has
spent countless hours carrying his weak and coughing 3-year
old to doctors to treat the deadly virus that is killing him
and his little girl.
As China takes steps to combat its growing AIDS epidemic, the
government has made blood safety its technical priority,
allocating $117 million to improve blood banks. But the causes
of the Shen family tragedy will be hard to prioritize in time
to stop the HIV challenge in that country: ignorance, denial,
discrimination, weak laws and a rural health system that is
expensive, corrupt and essentially bankrupt.
The Shens were middle class and did not appear at risk for a
disease associated with intravenous drug use and prostitution.
They moved to Suzhou in 1995, but returned to Nanzhang, their
hometown, for the impending birth of their child. "I met two
of the blood sellers," Mr. Shen said. "As I know, there were
no tests on the blood and the men had no checkups."
By 1998, officials knew that HIV had entered the population of
blood sellers in central China. Nanzhang is not far from the
border of Henan province, where the percentage of blood
sellers with HIV is over 50 percent in some villages. While it
is illegal to sell blood, China's official blood banks can
meet less than half of the need of patients.
In an article about Ms. Chen's case in the China Health News,
one official said that the transfusions were "a case of having
no other option," noting that Nanzhang is about 20 miles from
the county seat. Ultimately, the blood shortage is exacerbated
by a financial incentive for rural doctors to procure and sell
blood on the sly. Blood from an individual seller costs about
$5 and can be sold for about $250.
Shen has been forced to close his hair salon business. While
he has sued the rural hospital and received a big award, it is
unlikely that the hospital can pay. Unemployed and treated
like a pariah, Shen fears doctors will abandon his daughter if
they know she has HIV. "When my wife told doctors in Suzhou,
they all refused to treat her," he said.