Chinese Premier Appears on TV Visiting With AIDS Patients; First Senior Chinese Official To Publicly Address AIDS Epidemic
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao on Monday appeared on Chinese state television greeting AIDS patients and appealing to the country to treat HIV-positive people with "care and love," marking the first time a senior Chinese leader publicly addressed the country's HIV/AIDS epidemic, the Washington Post reports (Pan, Washington Post, 12/2). The visit, which coincided with World AIDS Day, also marked the first time a top Chinese government official had publicly met with an HIV-positive person, the New York Times reports (Yardley, New York Times, 12/2). Wen, who was accompanied by Vice Premier Wu Yi, wore a red ribbon and pledged to make HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment a high priority, urging government officials at all levels to act with a "spirit of high responsibility to the people" and calling for a "struggle with full confidence against the disease." AIDS advocates praised Wen's remarks but said that continued leadership was necessary to force the government to confront the epidemic, according to the Post. "Wen's public appearance is significant, but we need to see what actions follow," Wan Yanhai, a former Health Ministry official who last year was detained by state security officials for distributing a government report about China's AIDS epidemic, said, adding, "The leadership needs to do more than visit AIDS patients in the hospitals. It needs to support their activities and support AIDS activists" (Washington Post, 12/2). "The symbolic value is terrific. It sends a clear signal to other parts of government and different ministries," a foreign AIDS expert, said, adding, "They look at the political winds and see how to act and behave."
The visit, during which Wen spoke with three patients for about 40 minutes, was a "landmark move" for the country, which has been called a "time bomb" for AIDS and where officials have treated information about AIDS as a state secret, the Knight Ridder/San Jose Mercury News reports (Johnson, Knight Ridder/San Jose Mercury News, 12/2). Chinese officials have been reluctant to openly discuss the epidemic because they fear the response of foreign investors and because they fear being blamed for the epidemic, according to the Post. Hundreds of thousands of poor farmers contracted HIV through a government-sponsored program in the early 1990s, during which the farmers sold their blood at state hospitals and private clinics (Washington Post, 12/2). The United Nations estimates that China had approximately 1.5 million HIV-positive people in 2002, but many health officials say that the true figure could be much higher. The United Nations has said that China could have 10 million people living with HIV by 2010 (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 9/5).
The government in recent weeks has taken other actions that signal increasing momentum in the fight against HIV/AIDS in China, the Post reports (Washington Post, 12/2). China Central Television network on Nov. 25 began airing the country's first government-backed condom commercial, the Business Daily Update reports (Business Daily Update, 11/28). The 30-second commercial features a woman saying that she "felt safe" when using a condom during sex with her boyfriend, Xinhua News Agency reports (Xinhua News Agency, 11/28). China had previously banned some condom advertisements, according to the Daily Update (Business Daily Update, 11/28). In addition, a 20-part drama about a woman who tests positive for HIV after receiving a blood transfusion from her boyfriend is scheduled to air this week (Washington Post, 12/2). On World AIDS Day, 1,000 health workers throughout Beijing distributed condoms and pamphlets and visited schools to talk about AIDS (San Jose Mercury News, 12/2). The government has also begun distributing free antiretroviral drugs to more than 5,000 rural HIV-positive people and has announced plans to expand the program to 35,000 patients by 2008, the Post reports (Washington Post, 12/2).
Moves Signal 'Desperately Needed Switch,' Editorial Says
Wen's visit with AIDS patients on Monday and the Chinese government's decision to distribute antiretroviral drugs signals a "desperately needed switch" from the government's "unconscionable denials in the face of spreading AIDS problems," a Baltimore Sun editorial says. Although the "unprecedented, highly symbolic visit" could be a sign that the government "may finally be getting serious" about AIDS, "[t]he question remains" if its still "too little and too late to prevent the disease from infecting 10 million to 20 million Chinese by 2020 -- a question in which the whole world has a big stake," the editorial says. The country is "capable of an effective public health campaign once it summons the will," the editorial says, adding that developed countries should provide "aid and expertise." The editorial concludes that "first and foremost, Beijing must launch a sweeping war on AIDS, backed by a far greater commitment of resources" (Baltimore Sun, 12/2).
Additional information on World AIDS Day -- including webcasts; access to studies and key facts; and links to resources and organizations around the world -- can be found online on kaisernetwork.org.