February 21, 2008

AIDS Activist Speaks to C.U. About Epidemic in China

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Three-time Chinese government detainee Dr. Wan Yanhai spoke to an audience in the Carl Becker dining hall on Tuesday about his continuing determination to combat AIDS.
As founder of AIZHI, a prominent AIDS organization, Wan gave a three-part lecture series during a two-day visit to Cornell this week, which was organized by Prof. TianTian Zheng of SUNY Cortland.
Commencing his visit with a lecture on Tuesday followed by an additional speech on Wednesday, Wan discussed the growing epidemic of AIDS/HIV in China and his own experiences as an advocate for transparency and recognition of the problem within China.
Current estimates hold that approximately 700,000 individuals in China are HIV positive, and that the current infection rate in China is close to 0.05 percent, though it varies largely within different regions and among different demographic groups. [img_assist|nid=28035|title=Aid is on the way|desc=Chinese AIDS Activist Dr. Wan Yanhai speaks about the conditions of AIDS in China yesterday.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
This variance in distribution can be partly explained by the one of China’s largest public health scandals involving unsanitary plasma donation techniques used at Henan state-sponsored blood collecting agencies. News of this scandal was leaked into the public after Wan Yanhai posted a classified state document on his organization’s website, www.aizhi.org, detailing the connection between unsafe practices at blood collecting stations and the rise of AIDS in the Henan province of northern China in the mid-1990s. Within a two-year period this scandal caused Henan villages to see the infection rates raise from less than 1 percent to 50 percent.
The fallout from this scandal has not only lead to isolated AIDS epidemics within the Henan province, but has also lead to national AIDS transmission when contaminated blood products were used to treat patients, many of whom were women, children and hemophilics.
Though no government official has yet to be be held accountable for the scandal, in the time since its leak into public consciousness infected individuals have gained access to free antiviral treatment, financial assistance and counselling through China’s new “four free and one care” policy.
While Wan criticized the Chinese government’s past response to the problem, he admits that “compared to five years ago, the Chinese government is doing a good job”, and has demonstrated “a good will to fight the epidemic”. However, he added “They don’t have the capacity, they don’t have the mechanisms.”
Dr. Wan stressed that a solution to the AIDS epidemic in China must be a home grown solution, and that it will not be as simple as blindly adopting the policies and liberal standards of the west.
Currently, China adopts the policies set out by the U.N and its recommendations on how to handle the AIDS infected population within the country. From the onset, Dr. Wan noted, that this action “seems very good, but if you look at other laws, in marriage and in hiring of public officials … if you look at these other laws you’ll see that [AIDS infected individuals] can’t marry, can’t get hired as teachers.”
While China cannot legally discriminate against individuals with AIDS, AIDS patients are often dually afflicted with Hepatitis B, sexually transmitted diseases and Tuberculosis, which can be legally discriminated against.
He pointed to the lack of established principles as the root cause of many of such problems. In order to solve such contradictions, a set of principles must be used as guidelines to ensure cohesiveness of policy, free of discrimination, and just in the treatment of AIDS infected individuals.
Dr. Wan advocated against rash action, but instead for the government to do “more research,” he said. “I don’t even know the value of our work, what is the real impact, I don’t have research and evidence.”
What he most desires is for the Chinese government to allow for a greater amount of transparency of the situation, in order to increase the effectiveness in finding and executing a solution.
He noted that while the government worked hard to cover up the Henan blood scandal, the release of the information allowed the Chinese government to receive international funding to combat AIDS. This was something that could not happen with the “optimistically” misleading official figures that hid the immensity of the problem.
Currently, the Chinese government has invested over 800 million dollars into fighting AIDS domestically, but Dr. Wan says that without transparency it is hard to discern if the funds are spent effectively. He explained that government AIDS organizations get privileges, NGOs do not. These privileges include the ability to register as an official organization and receive government funding, but unlike the NGOs, the governmental organizations are not monitored in the spending.
In opening up the topic of the AIDS epidemic in China, and its humanitarian implications, Dr. Wan’s visit helped Cornell students to realize the stigma of AIDS within the United States itself. One international Chinese law student left an entire group of Cornell students and faculty dumbfounded after openly asking whether or not AIDS afflicted individuals faced discrimination in the United States.
After shaking her head with uncertainty, Lindsay Jacks ’09 hesitantly replied, “no one really talks about it here”.
Wan remarked, “There’s so much to do.”