By Gillian Wong
The Associated Press
BEIJING (AP) — AIDS activists were skeptical of a pledge by China’s government to fight discrimination against people with the disease, saying Dec. 1 that the move would mean little without improvements in education to increase awareness and alter mindsets.
Health authorities and the U.N. AIDS agency pledged to combat the stigmatization of people with the disease by unveiling a massive red ribbon, the symbol of AIDS awareness, at the Olympic Bird’s Nest stadium in Beijing.
The Health Ministry said in a statement Dec. 1 that the government will strengthen efforts in education on AIDS prevention and to fight discrimination, while also stepping up condom distribution and outreach to high-risk groups such as prostitutes and homosexual men. It did not give specifics.
Activists said they were not optimistic the move would produce results in a country where the topic of AIDS still remains very politically sensitive.
“I support the idea that they are trying to end AIDS discrimination, but unfortunately, that is not the reality,” said Li Fangping, a lawyer and AIDS activist. “People with AIDS are constantly denied treatment in hospitals and have died because of this reason.”
AIDS activist Li Dan, director of the China Orchid AIDS Project, said community education and involvement are needed to fight the stigma attached to the disease.
“People are still afraid of putting their children into schools with kids who have AIDS and AIDS is still related back to people who do drugs,” Li said.
The HIV virus that causes AIDS gained a foothold in China largely due to unsanitary blood plasma-buying schemes and tainted transfusions in hospitals. Last year, health authorities said sex had overtaken drug use as the main cause of HIV infections.
After years of denying that AIDS was a problem, Chinese leaders have shifted gears in recent years, confronting the disease more openly and promising anonymous testing, free treatment for the poor and a ban on discrimination against people with the virus. But the government regularly cracks down on activists and patients seeking more support and rights.
Official estimates put the number of people living with HIV in China at about 700,000, with about 85,000 people with full-blown AIDS, U.N. AIDS said. But the number of officially reported HIV cases is far lower at 264,302, in part because of reluctance to seek testing. ♦
Associated Press writer Chi-Chi Zhang contributed to this report.