China Village Riddled With
AIDS Left To Die By Government
WENLOU (Agence France Presse) - The village of Wenlou has been devoured by AIDS, but the authorities have abandoned the sick to a painful death and tried to cover up a phenomenon which has terrifying implications for China.
Nobody knows how many people in Wenlou have AIDS or the HIV virus.
In the past two years 30 of the 800 residents have died from the disease, while at least 10 others are dying. A sample of 155 villagers tested found 95 were HIV-positive, a staggering 65 percent
But while the poor lettuce and onion-growing community in the central province of Henan was being ripped apart by the disease, the government ordered locals to keep quiet and villagers have been ostracized.
They cannot sell their vegetables, a Wenlou stamp on an ID card can lose a job, young women cannot find husbands and ladies from other villages refuse to touch Wenlou's men.
Doctors at the local Shangcai county hospital, lacking basic understanding of the disease, turned away AIDS patients and even refused treatment to a villager who had injured his leg.
"This is not a major problem, there are just a few cases," an angry official at the Shangcai county health department told AFP.
The villagers feel they have been left to die by petty local officials fearful of a scandal in their neighborhood and complain they have received no medical help from the government.
"They told me not to speak to reporters about this, but this is my family's matter and I have a right to talk about it. I'm 53 already, they can arrest me if they want," Cheng Gaotian told AFP.
As Cheng spoke his three-year-old grandson Wei Wei, ravaged by the AIDS virus and perhaps days from death, winced and buckled in his arms.
"The hardest thing for me is I watched my daughter-in-law die, and there's nothing I can do for my grandson. I've borrowed 25,000 yuan (3,000 dollars) from the bank and from relatives to buy medicine, but I'm old already. What's going to happen to my family after I die?" Cheng asked
The problems in Wenlou, which could indicate an AIDS timebomb in rural China, stem from both legal and illegal blood banks which toured the country from the early 1980s paying for blood.
Chinese are typically reluctant to donate blood and a national shortage was plugged by roaming blood banks with appalling hygiene standards.
Wenlou villagers flocked to give blood, making a fortune of five dollars each time. The blood stations would put the blood in a big tub, extract the plasma and then pump the remainder back into the peasants.
Everybody did it, villagers told AFP.
Almost all their mud-brick houses were built with blood money -- they used to live in one-room thatched huts. The cash also paid for kids' education, daughters' dowries, taxes and fines for violating the one-child policy
A middle-aged woman, whose daughter died from AIDS in July and whose 29-year-old son lay dying in bed with both legs covered in dark sores, said the money seemed like manna from heaven.
"My daughter and son began donating blood when they were 15 and 16 years old. My son didn't want me to do it because my health was poor. For each time he donated blood, we bought a large wooden beam to build the roof," she said
As people became weak the village was gripped by fear and ignorance.
"At first families would try to keep it a secret. Villagers would ask questions when they saw someone losing a lot of weight and looking sickly, but the family would say it was just a cold. No one wanted to let it out. They didn't know what it was," said a young man whose mother has AIDS.
When several people died, villagers became scared and started avoiding families with sick relatives. Local hospitals had never seen the disease before and did not diagnose AIDS.
The only help the villagers received was from two doctors, Gui Xien and Gao Yaojie, who heard about the "mystery illness" and started coming to the village every few months with basic medicine, food and AIDS information
The pair have often been driven out of Wenlou by angry officials, but it was Gui's tests which revealed the shocking statistic
Their efforts have gained attention in small local papers but despite evidence of the scale of the epidemic and the prevalence of roaming blood banks, China's major state media have kept quiet.
"Just wait, one day, Shangcai will shock the whole world," Gui told the China News Weekly. Since some publicity emerged about the case, his hospital has refused to allow him to speak to reporters.
Already there are signs the problem is not isolated to Wenlou.
Two people died from AIDS last year in a nearby village, a resident told AFP before a village elder quickly tried to keep a lid on the conversation.
"We don't have many. Wenlou has a lot. Go to Wenlou," he said.
Nobody knows how serious the problem is in Shangcai as local officials have tried to sweep the issue under the carpet, fearful they will be punished for allowing the blood stations to thrive.
The central government has also yet to do a study on how many people were paid for blood before the practice was banned in 1998, but estimates run into tens of millions.
Experts warn the problem caused by contaminated blood could spread rapidly if not dealt with immediately
On the eve of Thursday's World AIDS Day, China conservatively estimates it has around 500,000 HIV carriers but UN experts have warned of more than 10 million cases by 2010 if the disease remains unchecked.
Zeng Yi, head of one of the two biggest Chinese non-governmental organizations devoted to AIDS prevention, said China had until now focused AIDS prevention on cities in the belief that drugs and prostitution were the major factors in its spread.
However the majority of China's HIV carriers are in the countryside where blood selling has contributed to a rapid spread of AIDS which has gone largely unrecognized by the government, he said.
"If they don't deal with the isolated cases, it can become a big problem," said Zeng, who believes that the epidemic in Shangcai may still be isolated but could snowball out of control if policy does not change.
Dr Gui took his evidence about Wenlou to Beijing last year and the ripple of publicity has already shamed officials into some action -- earlier this week three dying AIDS patients were taken to hospital.
The health ministry in Beijing told AFP it was aware of the Wenlou problem but had not decided what action to take. The Henan health ministry meanwhile played down the problem and pointed to AIDS problems in neighboring Hubei.
In their desperation people in Wenlou have begun to speak out, pleading for medicine or information about foreign wonder drugs, but many believe officials simply hope the village will die out.
One villager, who put her three daughters through high school with blood money, has not told the daughters, now working in Beijing, that she has begun to feel signs of the disease.
"I have a fever. It's not too high, but it's been going on for a long time. All the other people who died had this type of fever. My daughter tells me it's not AIDS, but I know my own body and I've never felt this before," said the woman.
"I have three daughters. They're all so young. I won't be able to see them married," she told AFP as tears filled her eyes and she recalled the brother-in-law who died several months ago and the bedridden sister too weak to move. ((c) 2000 Agence France Presse)

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