July 4, 2005

China AIDS victims fight bad drugs, ineptitude

By Juliana Liu

SHUANGMIAO, China (Reuters) - Wang Shuling's skin isstretched tight over her bones and her body shakes like a leaf,to the point that she cannot walk on her own and her hands arenot steady enough to lift a glass of water.

Wang, 50, has AIDS and is one of tens of thousands inChina's central Henan province who contracted the HIV virusthrough botched local blood-selling schemes in the mid-1990s.

The epidemic in Henan, where some believe as many as 1million people have been infected, was initially covered up,but in recent years the government has come relatively clean onits AIDS problem and taken steps to help victims, offering themsubsidies and free medication.

But poverty and inept leadership keep Wang and many othersfrom getting the kinds of treatment and other support theyreally need.

"Officials just hand out medicine and consider their workdone," said Wan Yanhai, an AIDS activist and director of theAizhixing Institute of Health Education. "They are not tryingto improve the lives of these people."

Early this year, Wang switched from effective, butexpensive, drugs she bought herself to the government's freemedication. Six months later she stopped taking those pillsbecause they made her hands shake uncontrollably and left herneck painfully stiff.

"I refuse to take the government's medication any more. Iknow there's better medicine out there, but it costs more thanI can afford," Wang said, sitting in her modest house with barebrick walls and dirt floors.


Wang's story is not unusual among the thousands living withAIDS in Henan and around the country.

China claims it has 840,000 AIDS victims nationwide, butthat figure is less than half estimates from activists andexpert groups. The United Nations has said China could have asmany as 10 million cases in 2010 if it does not take AIDSseriously.

"Overseas experts say that the cocktail we are currentlyusing to treat AIDS is incomparably bad. While it can help insome cases, the side effects are enormous," Chinese AIDSactivist Hu Jia told Reuters by telephone.

"A lot of people cannot use it, they cannot take the sideeffects, and sometimes using the cocktail will speed death, astheir livers can't handle the stress."

The government's free medication drive was hampered by thelimited types of drugs available in China and the detachment oflocal officials, who might not even know the treatments werenot working, Aizhixing's Wan said.

"The government has done a lot, but there are still bigproblems. They rarely talk to people with AIDS about theirtreatments or their needs," he said in Beijing.

"Doctors should prescribe medications to patients andclearly explain how to use them. But in China, these drugs arebeing doled out to patients by infectious disease controlauthorities."

In the 1990s, while coastal cities grew wealthy from tradeand industry, densely populated Henan encouraged villagers tosell their blood to earn money.

Plasma from the donated blood was extracted for hospitalsand the remainder of the blood was then returned to donors toavoid anemia, meaning one infected donor could pass the virusto all the others.

Now bone-thin except for a pair of swollen feet, WangShuling was one of the first in Shuangmiao to sell her blood.She earned about 45 yuan ($5) each time and encouraged dozensof her impoverished neighbors to roll up their sleeves withher.

"I don't know how many times I sold blood. I did it anytime I needed money," she said.


In another part of Shuangmiao, a private orphanage forchildren with parents dead from AIDS is struggling to stayopen.

It was established by Zhu Jinzhong, a local man who died ofcomplications from AIDS this year. His wife, Yang Guixiang, 39,has kept the orphanage going, despite having little money andsupport from the local government.

"As long as I have food to eat, these kids will have foodto eat," Yang said.

When Zhu set up the village orphanage, known as the CareHome, 53 children lived under its roof. But in January 2004,local officials closed it down and moved almost all the kids toa government-run facility.

Now only four children live there all week and 17 visit onweekends.

The local government had also diverted a substantialdonation to the orphanage from China Central Television to thestate-run home, Yang said.

"Everything local officials have done is only meant topreserve their power. They won't allow anyone to make them lookbad," said Liu Xin, 16, one of the children moved to thegovernment orphanage. "They're very selfish."

On a warm Sunday morning, Liu and his friends rode toYang's house on a three-wheel tractor. Once there, they chattedand played chess, and in the afternoon they squatted on thefloor of the dark living room, where pictures of Zhu hang onthe wall, for a lunch of tomatoes and steamed bread.

"After I graduate high school, if I can, I want to dosomething like this to help people like me. I want to repay thefavor," said Liu, who lost both his parents to AIDS.

"There are people whose lives are much worse than ours. Thegovernment should take care of them. We already have care andlove." ($1=8.276 Yuan)