HENAN PROVINCE, China, 11 June 2004—"Daddy died three years ago because of the disease called AIDS." Taohua (not her real name) is a skinny 11-year-old girl with a ponytail. She is shy but well spoken. "First he had headaches. Then he got very sick and went to see a doctor, but he just got sicker. My mom wanted to buy some medicine, but our family was too poor. My daddy didn’t want my mom to spend the money."
Remembering this difficult time, her eyes began to fill with tears. "He was sick at home for more than a year. After the funeral, one of my aunts bought some clothes for me. Other relatives and some of our neighbors gave us money and food, so we would have enough to eat."
Taohua’s family grows wheat, peanuts and fruit trees. They can’t afford any chickens or pigs. They live in a sleepy village in the middle of the vast flatland of Henan Province. The massive wave of urbanization in coastal China has not yet reached here.
But HIV/AIDS did.
In the early 1990s, several blood collection centers were set up near Taohua’s village. Many villagers sold blood to supplement their incomes, happy to earn money for each visit. In order to help them recover from blood loss so that they can sell blood again quickly, other plasma was pooled together from various blood sellers and pumped back into all the sellers' veins. The plasma was not tested for HIV viruses. As a result, HIV spread quickly in this conservative rural area where drug use and extramarital sex are rare. According to official statistics, more than 10,000 HIV/AIDS cases were reported in Henan Province in 2003.
"What I’m most worried about is my mommy. She hasn’t been feeling well lately," Taohua says in a small voice. She then adds: "Daddy sold blood twice, but mom has never done it." According to a local official, Taohua does not yet know that her mother is HIV-positive, most likely as a result of secondary transmission from her late husband.
Like Taohua, some 130 children in her village have already lost one or both parents to AIDS. In Henan Province, more than 2,000 children have been orphaned by AIDS, most of them between the ages of six and 15 years. Some of the children are HIV-positive also. If the surviving parent is too sick to take care of his or her children, the youngsters generally live with their grandparents or in a local welfare centre.
UNICEF China, along with other UN agencies and development partners, formed a UN theme group on HIV/AIDS to urge the Chinese authorities to make HIV/AIDS a top national priority. A 2003 Joint Assessment, conducted by the Ministry of Health with support from the UN theme group, found an estimated of 840,000 HIV/AIDS cases in China. At the UN General Assembly high-level meeting on HIV/AIDS, held in New York in 2003, a public vow of commitment was made by Vice Minister of Health, Gao Qian. In 2004, China’s State Council established an HIV/AIDS Working Committee chaired by Vice Premier Wu Yi.
As part of the support package, local governments in Henan waive school fees for children affected by HIV/AIDS, while also providing training to schoolteachers. Other measures include:
During a monitoring trip in March 2004, UNICEF China’s chief health expert Dr. Koenraad Vanormelingen was impressed by the progress made since his last visit six months earlier. "With relatively small financial input and technical support from UNICEF, the local authorities have taken a number of significant actions. I can see the difference already."
A number of top officials, including Ms. Wu and Mr. Gao, toured Henan in 2003. They visited people living with HIV/AIDS at home, shaking hands and talking with them. Mr. Pu Cunxin, a well-known actor, was filmed sharing a meal and eating from the same plate as several people living with HIV/AIDS in Henan. "Showing such images in the media is a very effective way to reduce discrimination," said one local official.
The Henan authorities recently put together a ten-year plan of action to deal with the disease. HIV/AIDS leadership committees will soon be established at each administrative level and each government agency now has clearly designated roles and responsibilities. Local officials have had posters and leaflets printed explaining how the HIV virus can and cannot be transmitted. They have also organized public education and awareness events attended by thousands. In addition, local TV and radio stations are airing more and more programmes dealing with the topic of HIV/AIDS.
Taohua says: "I hear AIDS can’t be cured. But when I grow up, I want to become a doctor and cure everybody."