Blood-Selling Practice in China May Have Infected More than One Million Unknowing Residents with HIV
While Chinese health officials estimate that 600,000 of the country's 1.2 billion residents are HIV-positive, a "secret epidemic" is emerging in remote areas of China, where millions may be infected in part due to tainted government-operated blood collection procedures and because local officials "have blocked research and education campaigns about HIV, which they consider an embarrassment," the New York Times reports. In Donghu, a village in Henan Province, residents estimate that more than four out of five adults carry HIV, with more than 60% showing symptoms, a "localized rate" that would be among the "highest in the world." The events leading to this high rate began in the early 1990s, when Chinese biological product companies employed local health officials in "China's isolated, impoverished heartland" to set up blood-collection stations in order to obtain "cheap, clean plasma." Villagers eagerly participated, as the roughly $5 received for about a pint of donated blood was seen as "pennies from heaven, a way to take part in China's economic miracle." But the blood-collection process involved pooling blood from "dozens of sellers," which was placed in a centrifuge to isolate the plasma, while the "remaining fraction, mainly red cells, was divided up and transfused back into the sellers," often exposing them to HIV or hepatitis. These transfusions "disastrously" allowed sellers to donate blood "frequently," raising the chances of infection. By the end of 1996, residents of villages that had participated in the blood-collection noticed that those who had sold blood were experiencing "terrifying maladies that local hospitals could not cure," and the collection practice "tailed off." But some Chinese doctors "who have worked in [Henan] province," located in southeast China, estimate that more than one million people contracted HIV through selling blood in the province. They added that while blood collection "has died out in the most severely affected villages," the practice "continues elsewhere to a lesser extent."
No Local Recognition
The Times reports that the initial problem of the villagers' exposure to HIV has been compounded by a general ignorance about the virus and the unwillingness of local officials to address the problem. Until last year, the affected villagers did not even know that their symptoms were AIDS-related, and they had no knowledge of HIV's means of transmission, leading to a "second wave" of infections. While some information has "slowly filtered into" isolated villages, no health education program exists to educate villagers about HIV. In addition, "[c]heap and effective medications" that reduce the risk of vertical transmission are not available in China, and the cost of testing is beyond the means of many villagers -- although "there is no treatment available anyway." The Times reports that health officials in Beijing have "begun to pay more attention to the country's AIDS problem, developing strategies to contain it and allocating more money for the purpose," but "local governments have offered only spotty cooperation, sometimes going to great lengths to cover up AIDS problems and ignoring offers of help from the [national] government and international health groups." In the village of Wenlou, farmers and village leaders, defying "pressure from some local officials to remain silent," have attempted to petition Beijing for assistance in treating "the hundreds of farmers with AIDS." Cheng Jianfei, an HIV-positive former blood seller, noting that the government distributed brochures calling the plasma donations "glorious" and safe, said, "Blood selling was something the government encouraged us to do here, so we think they should bear some responsibility" (Rosenthal, New York Times, 5/28).