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CDC HIV/AIDS/Viral Hepatitis/STD/TB Prevention News Update
The Epicenter of an Epidemic
Julie Chao
October 15, 2003
Atlanta Journal-Constitution (10.15.03) - Wednesday, October

In pilot programs, Chinese authorities recently began distributing free antiretroviral drugs in 51 counties in 11 provinces to thousands of poor farmers who sold their blood under unsanitary conditions in government-backed schemes in the 1990s. "It's a huge attitudinal shift," said Ray Yip, director of CDC's AIDS program in China. The pilot includes nine counties in the province hit worst by the blood selling, Henan. China plans to expand distribution to 100 counties by the end of the year.

China says it has about 1 million HIV carriers, but some activists say the number infected through blood sales alone is 1 million. The CIA has predicted the number of HIV-infected will rise to 20 million in a decade.

Faced with such statistics and international pressure, Beijing earlier this year allowed two Chinese pharmaceutical firms to begin producing four AIDS drugs. The annual per-patient cost of treatment is about $425, compared to imported drugs costing paying patients nearly $5,000. The government hopes to reach about 3,000 patients, mostly those who contracted HIV through blood-selling, but it has run into problems trying to locate them.

"The main reason we can't find them is because some people don't want anything to do with health officials or getting checkups," said Xu Jie, a researcher for China's National Center for AIDS/STD Control and Prevention.

Foreign and Chinese journalists and even medical workers have been chased away when they venture into Henan. In June about a dozen villagers were beaten up and arrested in a night raid after more than 100 protested for better medical care.

"Local governments face all sorts of problems - building the economy, laid-off workers, overtaxation of farmers, state enterprise restructuring," said Xu. "AIDS is not even a priority. They say, 'You're spending money on prostitutes or drug dealers, but our laid-off workers don't have anything to eat.'" International experts also fear that low compliance with the complex drug regimen will breed a more resistant HIV. Patients are checked once a month but are offered no counseling or treatment for AIDS-related infections. China hopes to change that with a $98 million grant from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, scheduled to be announced this week. Much of the money is to be spent on training doctors in AIDS treatment.