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AIDS Battle Taken Closer Home
Teams of provincial-level officials will be posted for a year to the villages in Henan that have been hit hard by HIV/AIDS, as the government steps up efforts to contain the deadly virus and help the victims.

The 76 officials, to be sent out in pairs to 38 villages, are from 38 provincial government departments, such as the health and finance bureaus. They start their work today after having received AIDS prevention training.

There are at least 10 HIV/AIDS sufferers in each of the designated villages. Some have as many as 400, says Guo Weiqun, deputy director of Henan Health Bureau’s general office.

Each of the provincial teams will be joined by two city- and county-level officials from the affected areas.

First-Hand Help

"They will live in these villages and be neighbors of HIV/AIDS sufferers," Zhang Shuxin, a division director of the General Office of the Henan provincial government, told China Daily.

Their primary tasks are to establish and improve grassroots medical treatment and relief systems for HIV/AIDS sufferers; strengthen infrastructure to fight the disease; and ensure that village authorities use HIV/AIDS funds properly and strictly in accordance with laws and regulations.

The officials are also charged with overseeing the implementation of the central government's comprehensive program for HIV/AIDS victims. It includes providing free medicine to HIV carriers, free and anonymous HIV tests for villagers, free education for orphans of HIV/AIDS victims, free prenatal care for infected pregnant women, and care for elderly people who have lost children to AIDS.

A total of 11,844 people have been confirmed HIV-positive in Henan -- about 14 per cent of the total in China. Most were infected through illegal blood sales.

In the early 1990s, many low-income farmers from provinces such as Henan, Shanxi and Sichuan were infected when they sold their blood plasma at unauthorized purchasing stations. They then spread the virus to their spouses and partners.

In light of the concern showed by top central government leaders while visiting HIV/AIDS victims at the grassroots level, local officials in Henan are, for the first time, taking concrete steps to take care of the unfortunate villagers.

Because bringing the spread of HIV under control needs concerted efforts from various fields, the 76 officials are expected to build links between various departments and the effort to contain the virus, says Zhang Shuxin.

Increase Awareness & Understanding

By living and working with villagers with HIV/AIDS, provincial officials can acquire a better understanding and render more support, Zhang explains.

Chen Ruijin, a 55-year-old team member from the provincial health bureau, says that they expect to do more than simply complete the tasks set by the government.

"We will be friends with the villagers and have heart-to-heart talks. This is the only way we can really understand their suffering--which has long been ignored--and try to help them."

Chen adds that the direct experience of the teams will also help others to understand the plight of the villagers.

Chen will live and work in Donghu Village, more than 400 kilometers from his home in Zhengzhou, the provincial capital.

Of the 632 villagers who illegally sold blood in Donghu Village, 231 were infected with the virus, with 177 developing full-blown AIDS and 59 dead, says Chen.

"I know it will be hard work that requires great patience, but I am willing to do it because I also grew up in rural areas and, as a public servant, I must take the responsibility."

Chen's words are echoed by Zhang Beichuan, an HIV/AIDS expert based in Qingdao, Shandong Province. Zhang says that ignorance has worsened relations between the authorities and HIV/AIDS sufferers in some parts of China.

The Henan provincial government has now made HIV/AIDS control a priority, especially since late last year. It plans to spend 80 million yuan (US$9.6 million) to build a primary school and a clinic, provide clean drinking water and set up other infrastructure for each HIV/AIDS-stricken village.

HIV/AIDS has orphaned 2,026 children in the province. Some are being raised by relatives or have been adopted by other families, each of whom get a government subsidy of 100 yuan (US$12) each month. The rest of the orphans have been sent to public orphanages.

Immediate Measures Needed

According to an investigation by the Ministry of Health and the United Nations last year, 840,000 people in China have been infected with HIV/AIDS, including 80,000 AIDS patients.

The rate of HIV/AIDS infection in China is still relatively low, but growing at an alarming rate. Experts warn that if immediate measures are not taken, the total number may reach 10 million by 2010.

Since the late 1990s, the central government has been paying increasing attention to the epidemic, announcing a long-term national program of HIV/AIDS prevention and control that places a ceiling of 1.5 million on the number of cases by 2010.

However, at the end of 2003, the lack of attention to the problem from government leaders at various levels was seen as a major obstacle to effective HIV/AIDS control.

According to a survey conducted during 2001 and 2002, more than 90 per cent of city- and county-level officials knew nothing about the national program or AIDS-related regulations issued by the central government.

Ignorance, Apathy & Fear

The survey questionnaire was given to 710 officials from 31 provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities who were attending training classes at the Party School of the CPC Central Committee, says Jin Wei, a professor at the school.

The results of the survey showed that local officials in particular have a poor understanding of the epidemic and related policies. This hinders efforts to implement the state control program at the grass roots, Jin noted.

More than 32 percent of the officials surveyed said that HIV/AIDS control had nothing to do with their work.

Further aggravating the problem is the fact that many local officials hide such problems from their superiors and the public, for fear the truth will affect their career prospects.

However, the SARS outbreak in early 2003 has led to improvements in the reporting of epidemic information.

Since then, top Chinese leaders have broken new ground in tackling the HIV/AIDS problem.

Late last year, on a visit to Ditan Hospital in Beijing Premier Wen Jiabao became the first top leader to shake hands with HIV/AIDS sufferers.

Vice Premier Wu Yi, who is also acting health minister, visited HIV/AIDS victims in Henan Province’s Wenlou Village, where there are about 400 HIV/AIDS cases.

By the end of 2003, pilot projects had been launched by the Ministry of Health in more than 100 counties to provide comprehensive care for HIV/AIDS victims.

(China Daily, edited by Denise Henry for February 18, 2004)

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