November 29, 2005

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Killer virus already in China

A new report on the potential for a bird flu epidemic in China reveals that corrupt or inept officials and bureaucratic problems may hinder efforts to halt the viruses' spread. Not exactly Earth-shattering. What is far more disturbing is the latest numbers on a virus that is already a proven killer approaching epidemic proportions: HIV/AIDS.

The SCMP reports that Vice Premier and former Health Minister Wu Yi has found the problem with dealing with China's AIDS problem:

Vice-Premier Wu Yi yesterday attacked local officials for disregarding national policy on Aids prevention and treatment, as the number of confirmed cases rose to a new high. The official number of people infected with HIV rose to 135,630 by the end of September, up 50,000 to 60,000 from last year, according to the State Council's Work Committee on Aids Prevention and Treatment.

But this figure was only 16 per cent of the estimated actual total of 840,000. Ms Wu blamed inadequate monitoring and testing for the shortfall...But the latest report shows the sharing of needles by drug users has become the most common form of transmission, accounting for 40.8 per cent of infections. Blood transfusions accounted for 23 per cent of infections and sexual transmission 9 per cent. About 23 per cent were infected through unknown means, but it is believed most of these were cases of sexual transmission.
My emphasis on the estimated real total. Ms. Wu also knows why local officials are not supporting national efforts to provide free treatment and education on prevention. It is a combination of ignoring the reality (ie blissful ignorance) and that promoting prevention and treatments could adversely impact local area's image, business and investment (ie AIDS is bad for business). The SCMP follows with the obligatory heart-breaking personal story, in this case a mother and son infected with HIV via a blood transfusion (full story below the jump).

It's a start that someone as enlightened and pro-active as Ms. Wu is leading the national fight against HIV/AIDS. It's a tragedy that such efforts are stymied at a local level by the very corrupt and inept officials the bird flu report is fretting about. Most importantly, instead of panicking about a potential bird flu epidemic, China and other countries should worry about the HIV/AIDS epidemic they already have.

Related: How serious is the bird flu threat and the problem of crying wolf.

HIV-infected mother and son fight for justice

When eight-year-old Zhu Mengchang saw soldiers raising the national flag on Tiananmen Square this month, he told his mother he wanted to be a soldier when he grew up.

Liu Xianhong promptly burst into tears.

It was not that the mother of two was not moved by her son's ambition. Rather, she was beset by the uncertainties lying ahead, because they have both tested positive for HIV.

It was their first trip to Beijing, to petition the Ministry of Public Security over an assault on members of their family by about 30 police officers and security guards during a sit-in outside a Hebei hospital.

The raid on October 17 outside the Xiandewang Coal Mine Hospital in Xingtai put six of Ms Liu's family members in hospital.

"We were sitting in the yard of the hospital. Suddenly a group of policemen stormed in. They all wore helmets and held batons. Then they started beating us. Someone shouted, `Beat them to death. The coal mine will be taking care of this'. Then they beat us for roughly 20 minutes, and so many people collapsed," she said.

Ms Liu's husband, Zhu Xianping, and his parents are still in hospital. Mr Zhu suffered severe head injures and broken bones.

The sit-in was part of their battle to seek compensation and an explanation for her HIV infection through a postnatal blood transfusion at the hospital in 1995. She passed the virus to Mengchang, who was born two years later.

"It [the blood transfusion] was on the first day of the eighth lunar month. I clearly remember the date. It's my daughter's birthday," she said.

"I felt OK after giving birth to my daughter. But the doctor said I was weak and needed a transfusion. My husband said I should listen to the doctor, so I accepted it - the only transfusion I have ever had in my life."

It was only after tests by the Xingtai Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on the Zhu family in February that they realised the 400 yuan blood transfusion had cost them more than that.

"My family knew that I was infected with HIV before I did. They didn't want to break the news to me because they thought I couldn't handle it. But I grilled my husband because I found it weird that he was in tears whenever he saw me," Ms Liu said.

Only Ms Liu and Mengchang tested positive for HIV.

Shocked by the news, Ms Liu went to the CDC to try to find out how she and her son had contracted the Aids virus.

"I have never worked outside Xingtai. We are decent people who have never done anything immoral. Experts from the CDC said the only way I could have been infected would be through a blood transfusion, and then I passed it to my son," Ms Liu said.

Attempts to contact Xiandewang hospital were unsuccessful.

A lawsuit demanding compensation of 1.2 million yuan from the hospital was filed in July.

Ms Liu's case is not a unusual in Xingtai, where Aids activist Li Qianji said at least 200 people were infected with the virus through transfusions of tainted blood.

Last year, Mr Li revealed to China Central Television that the Xingtai Blood Centre illegally bought blood from Shanxi province - mainly from the cities of Yuncheng , Linfen and Yongji - from September 1995 to January 1997.

Media reports prompted the Ministry of Health to order the Hebei provincial Bureau of Health to investigate blood supplies in Xingtai in December and January.

Ms Zhu and her family started holding sit-ins almost every day outside Xiandewang hospital after they filed the suit, in an attempt to seek an explanation from the hospital and to settle the case outside court.

Wang Liming, Ms Liu's lawyer, said a civil lawsuit could take up to six months to settle.

"She's HIV-positive and doesn't know how long she is going to live. By settling the case with the hospital, she thinks she can get the compensation to secure her son's medical expenses sooner. And she is willing to accept a lower figure as long as the hospital agrees to settle it," Mr Wang said.

But the family have never had a single meeting with hospital management during three months of sit-ins. Mr Wang said the hospital was unable to provide Ms Liu's medical record, as required by law.

Mr Wang said the Xingtai Public Security Bureau had set up a team to look into the case and Ms Liu would file a lawsuit against those who carried out the assault once the investigation was over.

He added that a ruling on Xiandewang hospital would be handed down soon.

A coal mine branch of the Xingtai Public Security Bureau said the case was under investigation, but denied police assaulted the family.

posted by Simon on 11.29.05 at 09:30 AM in the China food/environment/health category.


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