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Inter Press Service
HEALTH-CHINA: Peasants Expose Hidden AIDS Epidemic
Antoaneta Bezlova
June 3, 2001
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, covered-up tragedy.

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 epidemic.

"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 "harmless".

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 local taxes.

"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.