BEIJING, Jun 3 (IPS) - When desperate, dying peasants with AIDS
took their grievances to the capital this week, it became clear
that for the second time this century, China's quiet rural
province of Henan is becoming the stage for an immense,
During the late fifties to early sixties, millions of people in
Henan, central China, died during the big famine of the Great
Leap Forward. Today, people from the province say, they are
suffering from a massive AIDS epidemic.
A group of seven peasants, including two boys whose parents
died from AIDS, told reporters in Beijing that whole villages
in Henan had contracted HIV after selling blood to
government-owned blood stations in the 1990s. "Thousands" of
people have already died, they said.
The peasants' blood was infected after their blood plasma was
removed in poorly sanitised centrifuges, and the remaining
blood pumped back into their veins.
A couple of years ago, when the first AIDS-stricken people in
the province died, officials banned the blood donations
stations but did nothing to help the sick - and did not even
tell peasants how the disease was transmitted.
Infected peasants continued selling blood, and thus further
spread HIV. They passed it to their spouses and children too.
Now, Chinese medical researchers estimate that more than 80
percent of the residents in Henan villages, such as Wenlou and
Donghu in the Zhumadian region, have HIV, and more than 60
percent are already suffering symptoms of AIDS.
But instead of sounding the alarm, local health officials have
tried to cover up Henan epidemic with what some people call
lies, bullying and secrecy, preventing high-level officials
from the central Ministry of Health from getting a real picture
of the tragedy.
They have also tried to silence the few medical researchers who
dared make public their findings about the hidden AIDS
"There are so many people, I can say in Henan there are
hundreds of thousands of people suffering from AIDS," said one
elderly woman from Wenlou village who traveled to Beijing to
appeal for medical care and justice against the blood
collectors who she holds responsible for getting the disease.
"We don't have any hope, we don't have any money or medicine,
we are waiting to die," said the woman, who asked not to be
identified. "But we hope the person who is responsible for this
tragedy, the 'blood head' will be arrested."
Peasants told reporters how they were encouraged by local
health officials to donate their blood in a state-run hospital
where a large sign extolled blood donation as "glorious" and
They were paid 40 yuan (4.8 U.S. dollars) per blood sample and
used the money to pay for their children' school fees and cover
"I do not remember how many times I sold my blood," said one
elderly man from Wenlou, "but if you took all the blood and put
it into a barrel, you would not be able to lift it up."
"Everybody in the village was selling blood. We didn't give it
a second thought," added the woman. "They told us it was
harmless to sell blood. So we believed it. If they had told us
it could cause AIDS, nobody would ever sell their blood."
Official blood donations were presented to Henan peasants as a
way out of poverty. China's most populous province is also one
of the poorest. Some 80 percent of the 90 million Henan people
are farmers, who make their living by working in the fields.
But working on the farm was described by Wenlou villagers as
"money-losing". One of those who had come to Beijing said, "You
had to pay for the fertiliser, pesticide, everything. Also you
need to pay for your children's school fee. Everything needs
money. We all sold our blood to raise money."
Chinese press reports have alleged that people who truly
profited from the blood donations were local health officials.
They were in charge of selling the cheaply-purchased plasma of
peasants to Chinese biological product companies operating in
cities like Shanghai and Wuhan.
But when a group of foreign diplomats visited Henan last year,
they were told by these same provincial and county health
workers: "There have been no AIDS cases in Henan province."
By then, Chinese medical researchers have estimated that some
500,000 to 700,000 Henan peasants are living with HIV.
The two Chinese doctors who had tried to raise the alarm --
Professor Gao Yujie, a retired gynaecologist from the Henan
Chinese School of Traditional Medicine and Professor Gui Xi'en
from Wuhan University, were gagged by Henan health officials.
This week, the 76-year-old Gao was barred from traveling to the
United States to receive a humanitarian award for her campaign
to raise official awareness of the AIDS disaster in the
impoverished central plains of China.
Henan health officials refused to issue Gao a passport, fearing
she would further expose China's AIDS crisis at the award
ceremony, which was to be attended by United Nations Secretary-
General Kofi Annan.
According to official statistics, China had 22,517 people known
to be living with HIV at the end of last year, most of them
drug users and sex workers. But health ministry officials in
Beijing say they believe the number of known and unregistered
people with HIV together to be around 600,000.
But Chinese press reports say that more than one million people
in Henan province alone sold their blood in the 1990s. The
practice of paid blood donations is quite spread in
neighbouring provinces too.
With Henan authorities trying to keep the scandal quiet and
refusing to help people with AIDS, this province might be
witnessing a replay of its most bitter history of this century.
The deaths of some eight million people during the famine of
the Great Leap Forward were kept secret as long as possible.
All along, local party cadres claimed massive grain harvests,
double and triple the numbers reported by other provinces.
When Mao Zedong toured the province in the late 1950s, he did
not get to learn that peasants were starving to death. Instead
he admired Henan's model agricultural communes, and called on
everyone in China to learn from them.