CHINA: Illegal Blood Trade Fueling AIDS Epidemic
As Chinese government officials continue to stifle the topic of AIDS, the epidemic is worsening in China's rural areas, due to insufficient care and prevention, unsanitary blood selling and drug abuse, the New York Times reports. The Chinese government has acknowledged an HIV outbreak in Western provinces and cities, but the topic remains largely "taboo." Not only have officials forbidden the local news media and government health workers from discussing AIDS, but they have also prohibited outside researchers from studying the epidemic in China. Without organized studies, there is "no clear idea of the magnitude" of AIDS in China, "only disturbing hints." Covert studies reveal, however, that small towns throughout China are facing an "unreported, unrecognized AIDS epidemic," with some of the "highest localized rates of HIV infection in the world." One culprit fueling the epidemic in China's rural areas is the illegal blood trade, which "thrives" because of "perpetual blood shortages at hospitals and at companies that make medicines derived from blood." The Times reports that poor villagers line up to sell their blood to people known as "blood heads," who use unsterile collection methods. Contaminated needles used to draw blood are reused, leaving many donors infected with HIV, and donated blood is often pooled after the desired elements in the blood are removed, with the remainder divided and returned to the donors. These unsanitary methods cause blood-borne diseases to spread rapidly among blood sellers, and according to Dr. Gao Yaojie, a retired doctor in China working with AIDS patients, villagers are "often so ignorant about [AIDS] that they continue to sell their blood even after watching dozens of fellow villagers die, thinking that if they eat right and dress warmly, they cannot fall ill." Although the practice of blood selling was deemed illegal several years ago, a black market for blood still exists. Gao said that it is "unclear" how much of the tainted blood reaches hospitals, where blood donations are "theoretically" tested for HIV. Dr. Gui Xien, a researcher from Hubei Province, covertly investigated the effects of blood selling in the spread of HIV among farmers in Shangcai County in Henan, where blood selling is common. Gui took blood samples from 155 farmers from the area, and found that 62% were HIV- positive. However, when Dr. Gui approached health officials in Henan to establish an AIDS prevention program, offering his services for free, he was turned away and the government ordered him not to publish the specific results of his survey. Gao added that the situation in Henan is "generally ignored or covered up by local authorities, who fear it will reflect badly on their work or interfere with plans for business development." Gao said, "Big officials tell small officials to deny [the AIDS epidemic] is here, and so people don't get help" (Rosenthal, New York Times, 10/28).This is part of the KHN Morning Briefing, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.