China’s First Major HIV/AIDS Conference Focuses on Prevention, Although Most Infected Do Not Receive Care
Although officials in China are set to open the nation's first national conference on HIV/AIDS tomorrow, which will focus on prevention strategies, most infected Chinese, estimated by world health organizations to number near one million, are "receiving little or nothing in the way of care," the New York Times reports. Since government officials acknowledged in August that the nation faces an AIDS epidemic, HIV testing has become "widely available" in the country, partly because hospitals make a profit on the expensive exams, but "effective" treatment is "generally nonexistent" for those who test positive. "Everyone is talking about prevention to protect society. But there could be a million people infected, maybe more, and we need to help each other. We need to address our needs," Xiao Li, an Internet designer who has treated his HIV for eight years with only herbal medicines, said. The "prohibitive" cost of AIDS drugs, which cost about $10,000 a year per person in China, and a reticence on the part of Chinese officials to manufacture or import generic versions of the medicines have kept most HIV-positive Chinese from getting treatment. Cheaper generic versions of the drugs are available from India and Thailand for about $300 per person per year, and Chinese manufacturers have the capacity to produce generic AIDS drugs if necessary. A government drug company in Shenyang actually manufactures generic versions of AZT for export to Brazil, but the company lacks a license to distribute the drug domestically.
Careful on WTO Rules
Chinese officials are reluctant to import or manufacture generic drugs out of "fear of tarnishing" the country's new membership in the World Trade Organization, the Times reports. "Because we are about to enter the World Trade Organization, China is abiding by world treaties, including the international patent rights law," Zhao Wenli, a spokesperson for the Chinese AIDS Prevention and Control Center, explained. China already has a reputation as the "world's largest producer of fake brand name goods," which it is trying to shed. However, the WTO rules allow countries to break pharmaceutical patents in times of declared public health emergency. "If a patent really is standing in the way of treatment for a major group of people, then it is pretty clear that there are legal options for a government to curb the patent. The real question is whether a country has the confidence to do it," Antony Taubman, an expert on Intellectual Property Law at the Australian National University, said. AIDS appears to be a "low priority" in China compared with trade and economic development, leaving HIV-positive Chinese with only traditional medicine for relief, the Times reports. However, Chinese officials have "started to show a quiet interest in care." Last month, Dr. Shen Jie, a "leading" AIDS official, made a trip to Brazil to investigate its AIDS program and a few small clinics have opened with the help of foreign financial backers (Rosenthal, New York Times, 11/12).
Piot Urges Chinese Officials to Get 'Personally Involved'
Speaking this morning in Beijing, UNAIDS Executive Director Peter Piot "urged" Chinese officials to become "personally involved" in the fight against HIV/AIDS in order to "pull the country back from the brink of a major epidemic," Reuters reports. "Leadership is what makes the real difference in the fight against AIDS and leadership from the top. ... Presidents and prime ministers have spoken out in many countries in the world and have really made a difference," Piot said, adding that "[t]hese words can save lives and also can make sure that there is less discrimination in society." He said that China is on the "verge of a major epidemic if business as usual continues." UNAIDS estimates that as many as 10 million Chinese could be infected by 2010 unless more "decisiv[e]" action is taken to halt the spread of the virus. "What the future will look like, whether there will be 10 million people or 50 million people infected in China, that will depend in the first place on whether the country really wakes up on a massive scale," Piot explained, adding, "We have to go in China from the pilot, the small scale, to really covering the whole country. That's the challenge and that requires the top, top leadership." He also praised Chinese film and music stars for taking part in AIDS education campaigns and urged the central government to utilize the country's state-run media and organizations, such as the women's federation and the youth federation, to raise AIDS awareness (Page, Reuters, 11/12).
USA Today Profiles China's 'Ryan White'
Today, USA Today profiles Song Pengfei, a 19-year-old Chinese boy who has "put a face on AIDS for a Chinese regime insistent on dismissing [the virus] for years as a distant, inconsequential problem of fringe groups," much as Ryan White became the face of AIDS in the 1980s in the United States. Song, who was infected three years ago through a blood transfusion after a botched surgery severed an artery in his leg, took his story to American and Australian journalists after government officials reneged on promises to provide him with AIDS drugs, saying they were "too costly." Song explained, "I didn't have a choice to speak or not to speak, because if I did not, I would be dead now." Thanks to the New York-based group Aid for AIDS he has been on combination therapy since March 2000. He is one of fewer than a dozen people receiving antiretroviral therapy in China. Song's activism is particularly important "because people in China think AIDS is a problem of the West," William Stewart, program coordinator for the China-U.K. HIV/AIDS Prevention Project, a $21.7 million effort funded by the British government, said, calling Song an "icon" of the Chinese AIDS movement (Friess, USA Today, 11/12).