Posted on Feb 20, 2009 by Sergio Ulloa
The Chinese government recently released a report which gives a better idea of the growing severity of the AIDS problem in the country. The figures from the central government's Ministry of Health show that HIV/AIDS
was the leading cause of death by infectious disease last year, killing 6,897 people in the first nine months of 2008. While the numbers may be a little stunning and more than a little troubling, there is also a glimmer of hope to be seen from the news.
The virus killed more Chinese people last year than any other infectious disease, with tuberculosis, rabies, hepatitis and infant tetanus ranking as the second through fifth biggest killers respectively. According to the health ministry, in 2005, out of all the infectious diseases
, AIDS was the third leading cause of death in the country. The number of reported deaths by AIDS is not the only number to have spiked, as the number of confirmed cases of HIV rose to 264,302 cases, nearly doubling from 135,630 in 2005.
With the newest data in, China now has recorded 34,864 deaths from AIDS since the first reported case back in 1985. According to joint UNAIDS and WHO figures, there was an estimated 700,000 people in China who were HIV positive
by the end of 2007, including 85,000 AIDS patients. By their account, this means that 0.05% of China's population has been infected by the virus
Until recently, the problem has been that China has been less than diligent in acknowledging, tracking and dealing appropriately with the problem, making the data slightly unreliable, even now. After all, it was only in the first few years of the new millennium that the government started enacting laws to protect the rights of HIV/AIDS carriers and patients as well as proactive policies to start dealing with the issue after realizing that the central cause of HIV transmission in the country is now unsafe sex
. For a long time, AIDS was seen simply as an issue concerning certain subcultures in society, namely homosexuals, drug addicts and prostitutes. Because of the fact that these groups are, at least, frowned upon in most societies, there was no education or outreach programs, needle exchanges or anything else.
The problem is that because most of these things are taboo in Chinese society, homosexuals, drug abusers, and prostitutes or the people who use their services are often times married and can communicate sexually transmitted diseases like HIV/AIDS to their spouses. Another problem that afflicted China, like it has many countries without the proper infrastructure, was its blood banks. China had, for a number of years, operated on a system of paying people for blood donations, but the problem was that it started to attract unscrupulous people who would donate their blood despite the fact they already knew they had tainted blood. The hospitals were also in part to blame, as they were less than diligent in testing the blood before giving it out to people via transfusions and thereby infecting them, which is what happened in one tragic case in Heilongjiang province
. Thankfully, since that time the government has realized this problem and sought help to develop better practices, changing the system to accept only voluntary blood donations
, and also start education programs to teach people of the dangers.
So where is the bright side which I mentioned at the beginning of the article? It seems that the Chinese government realizes that as China develops economically, so too does it change socially. Instead of playing down and dismissing the problem demographics and the general change in social attitudes towards sexual openness and premarital sex, they are beginning to kick off education programs about HIV/AIDS as well as other STDs and reproductive health in general. It is in part, due to social stigmas involved that only 7% of women and slightly over 8% of men in China seek immediate treatment
for sexual related issues, while more than a third never seek help. It was in light of this that China kicked off the Sunshine Project to Care for Gender Health on Sunday, February 15th
2009, as the government seeks to open up the previously taboo subject of sex to conversation. And they should be applauded for being pragmatic enough to disregard long-held social beliefs in favor of better health for their citizens through information and education
. As with most things in medicine, the availability of information and the need for openness is often the key to making life as healthy as possible for everyone involved.