Chinese HIV/AIDS Conference Opens With Praise for ‘Openness’ But Warnings That More Efforts Needed
China's first national HIV/AIDS conference opened yesterday amid promises of more resources to fight the disease and a greater focus on disseminating educational prevention material, the Washington Times reports. More than 2,700 attendees from 20 nations are taking part in the conference, which began yesterday and will run through Friday, with the main goal of finding ways to slow the rate of new infections to 10% per year by 2005 (Washington Times, 11/14). Conference attendees discussed China's five-year program to combat HIV/AIDS on a national scale. The program seeks to educate 80% of "county-level" doctors and 50% of local medical personnel about HIV/AIDS by the end of 2002 and asks that HIV/AIDS funding be made a separate part of national and provincial budgets. Although the program addresses the contamination of the nation's blood supply, it does not foresee a solution to the problem in the countryside until the end of 2005 (Gittings, Guardian, 11/13). Intravenous drug use, a "flourishing" sex trade and improper blood collection procedures have helped fuel the nation's 30% annual HIV growth rate (AP/Arizona Republic, 11/13). UNAIDS Executive Director Peter Piot warned yesterday that the "increasingly affluent middle class" could "carry AIDS up the economic ladder from poorer environments where infections spread most rapidly" by patronizing sex workers. "That is the other side of economic development. Wealth is often associated with the fact that people think they can buy anything -- including sex," Piot said (AP/Baltimore Sun, 11/14).
Open But Not Transparent
Yesterday's proceedings, although a "much celebrated" step for China's HIV/AIDS program, reflected the country's "considerable ambivalence" about the degree of effort and openness needed to fight HIV/AIDS, the New York Times reports. Throughout the day, Chinese officials continually said that only 600,000 of the country's 1.26 billion residents are HIV-positive, a figure that has been "widely discredited" by international observers as "too low." Some U.N. experts privately said that the number of HIV-positive Chinese could be as high as 1.5 million. Foreign observers praised Chinese leaders' "increasing openness" about HIV/AIDS, but cautioned that Chinese efforts against the disease still have a long way to go, the Times reports. "Compared to two years ago, what's being said and the strategies that are being proposed are good. But there is definitely not nearly enough going on now to effectively deal with the epidemic," Piot said, adding that there is a "lack of a sense of urgency at all levels." Although the government has made "fledgling efforts" toward controlling the disease, it has not taken the kind of decisive action needed to curb transmission of the virus. Although officials have agreed that HIV/AIDS exists in China, they were reluctant to label the disease an "epidemic," substituting the word "situation" in translation every time Piot used the word in his opening address to the conference. The director-general of the Health Ministry's Disease Control Department also said at a news conference that reports of AIDS villages in Henan province, where up to one million people may have been infected through the blood trade, were "overblown," adding that HIV/AIDS cases were confined to "a dozen villages." Some also questioned the importance of the conference to Chinese officials when Vice Premier Li Lanqing backed out of addressing the opening session. Health Minister Zhang Wenkang spoke in his place. "Having the health minister involved is essential, but not enough. In most countries the solution has required the support of the prime minister, the king, or the president. Only then do things really start to happen," Piot said, adding that officials "do not seem to see what a problem this is going to be for China." He also criticized the "severe discrimination" faced by Chinese with HIV (Rosenthal, New York Times, 11/14). Seven people, who traveled to Beijing from Dongguan village in Henan, were denied entrance to the conference. All seven were infected with HIV through the blood trade and had hoped to take part in the proceedings. Piot said that the Chinese do not have a "tradition" of involving the "ordinary man and woman in the street" in problem solving or decision making, but noted that the conference, with more than 2,000 delegates and "hundreds" of journalists, marked a "point of no return" for that policy (BBC News, 11/13).
Gay Activists See AIDS as Acknowledgement of Community
Although the new openness in China may not extend as far as some observers would like to see, gay activists are seeing every concession as a small victory. This year, the Chinese Psychiatric Association took homosexuality off its list of psychiatric disorders, and activists hope that the country will begin providing AIDS education in gay communities. "At least people are making a connection between homosexuals and AIDS, regardless of whether it's good or bad," Zhang Yi, who organizes gay nights at a Beijing bar, said. His remarks "suggested that for gays in China, any recognition of their existence, even in the context of AIDS, was a step in the right direction," Reuters reports. China does not publish statistics on homosexuality, but earlier this year the government attributed 20% of the confirmed 28,133 HIV/AIDS cases to "unknown reasons," which may include homosexuality. According to Zhang, the government has "little idea how to approach" the gay community. But officials have realized that the gay community plays a "very important" role in curbing infection rates, one gay activist said (Ruwitch, Reuters, 11/14).
Officials Meet With Drug Makers to Discuss Discounts
Chinese Health Ministry officials have met with representatives from Merck & Co. and GlaxoSmithKline about lowering the costs of their AIDS drugs in China, but have not "rule[d] out" breaking the patents on the drugs if the price negotiations are not successful, AFX News reports. Speaking after a news conference yesterday, Shen Jie, director of the National Center for AIDS Prevention and Control, said that the companies are "willing" to consider price discounts, but also asked the government to consider cutting taxes on the drugs. She said that government ministries are currently coordinating an effort to lower the taxes. When asked if Chinese officials would consider breaking the patents on AIDS drugs, she said it "may be the next step but we are not considering it now," adding that if the drug companies can lower prices so that a year's supply of the drugs used in combination therapy costs about $350 per person instead of the current $10,000, the government "would not have to consider" breaking any patents. However, she noted that other countries have broken patents and can serve as a "reference" for China should it choose to do so (AFX News, 11/13).