HIV/AIDS-CHINA: Henan Orphans Finally Speak Out

(2005/03/09 Inter Press Service News Agency)



BEIJING, Mar 9 (IPS) – When a scandal of stunning proportions unfolded in central China’s Henan province in 2001 over the huge number of poor people being infected with HIV through the sale of their blood at a government-run scheme, it marked a slow and painful change for Beijing’s complacent – and sometimes hostile – attitude towards an emerging AIDS crisis.


Since December 2003, when China went public about the extent of HIV infections in the country, health experts have applauded the dramatic change in the government’s commitment in dealing with the disease.


Chinese leaders no longer regard HIV/AIDS as a foreign commodity; neither do they try to keep its serious encroachments in the country under wraps. Now they say they are determined to fight AIDS, with Premier Wen Jiabao warning last year that the disease could destroy the nation.


Nowhere is that dire projection of the future displayed more powerfully than in the lives of the thousands of children made orphans by AIDS in Henan province. In China, they bear a double stigma – of being orphans and being born to people that died from the scourge. They are growing up without parents, without love and care and without an education.


Once suppressed and censored, the stories of these orphans whose parents sold blood to scrape by, are now filtering out to the great embarrassment of local officials. Some had been collected by social workers in the province. Others are about to appear in a groundbreaking book on the Henan epidemic published by Dr. Gao Yaojie, an AIDS activist who was awarded the 2003 Magsaysay prize for her fight against the disease in China.


”I am Wen, born in Donghu village, Xincai county,” writes a 17-year-old girl in an account where nearly all dates noted down mark the death of someone dear.


”Autumn 2000. Both of my parents got sick from AIDS because of selling blood. Our family was very poor and my parents needed money for doctors. I was in 8th grade at the time but I had to stop going to school in order to take care of them and the house.”


”Dec. 20, 2000. Mother passed away…”


”August 19, 2001. Father was gone. My family was left with only my 11-year-old brother and me. Our parents left us with several thousand ‘jin’ (0.5 kilogrammes) of wheat, a little cash, an ox and a piglet. They were all taken by our uncles. My brother and I could only stare at the three empty rooms, hungry. I remember I often dreamt of my parents, making meals for the two of us. But when I woke up, I again faced the empty clay room, listening to wind and rain.”


Wen’s parents, as many other Henan peasants, were infected with the disease after selling blood to government collection stations in the 1990s. Numerous donors would be hooked up to the same blood plasma machines and the virus spread from one infected patient to many others.


It was the cash crunch that drove local governments in Henan to pile into the blood plasma trade as a way of funding their medical services. Once in the business, officials were reluctant to abandon such a lucrative source of revenue, even when the trade was banned.


Gao, who has worked for 15 years in AIDS-ravished Henan, estimates that an average of 20,000 people sold blood in each of the 58 Henan counties where the epidemic spread.


This means that one million peasants only in Henan province were infected by selling blood in a country where blood donation is a social taboo. In some Henan counties, entire adult village populations are dying, social workers say, because they can’t afford the treatment needed to keep them alive.


”People are dying, and dying very quickly, with a lot of suffering,” says Chung To, a Hong Kong social worker who began visiting the AIDS villages in Henan three years ago.


”There is little time left to help them (AIDS sufferers) die with more dignity but there is a lot that can be done for the children,” Chung tells IPS.


Chung To’s NGO, the Chi Heng Foundation based in Hong Kong, is one of the few organisations that have managed to overcome the suspicion of local authorities and start helping the AIDS orphans go to school.


”We got rejected in some counties,” Chung To recalls, ”but everywhere we went I tried to press the point that we were merely the fire fighters. We were not trying to search for the arsonists (the people guilty of stoking the epidemic), we were trying to put out the fire.”


Three years ago, the Chi Heng Foundation started paying for the education of 400 children. Now the number of their charges has grown to 2,000 – the youngest are between five to six years old, while the oldest are preparing to go to university.


Chung To, a former Harvard graduate and financier in Hong Kong, used his own savings to start the project. Education in China is compulsory for nine years and what these children need, in order to sustain them in school, is money for textbooks and to pay various miscellaneous fees.


The fees per school term – a mere 300 yuan (36 U.S. dollars), are beyond the reach of these orphans who are at the mercy of their relatives just for their daily meals.


In addition, Henan is among the poorest regions in the country. In the years of the famine, which followed the Great Leap Forward (1956-58), up to one million peasants starved to death in this quiet rural province. Even nowadays, many of the peasant families still live in mud huts and make only about 300 U.S. dollars a year.


”We need 3,000 yuan (362 U.S. dollars) to see a child through all the nine years,” says Chung To.


Although he managed initially to raise money from former colleagues and U.S. charities, Chung To fears a funding crunch may force him to abandon the orphans halfway through. ”My dream is to be able to set up a trust fund for each one of them. Now, I still have to worry about raising funds term after term,” he confesses.


If extrapolated from Gao’s figures on HIV/AIDS sufferers in Henan, the number of children made orphans by AIDS in the province is probably close to one million.


Official figures acknowledge only 35,000 confirmed HIV/AIDS sufferers in the province — 9,000 of whom have died. Even if official figures, which are widely considered conservative, are applied, the number of children impacted by the disease is anything from 40,000 to 80,000.


Very few of the children are HIV-positive themselves. Those that are, have dropped out of school. Also, many have been abused and scores have committed suicide.


For communist China, which always extolled children as the bright future of the nation, the stories of the children affected by AIDS are a source of disquiet. Authorities have become increasingly alarmed that an epidemic left unchecked could trigger large-scale protests in the countryside and create huge social problems in the future.


Last year authorities launched a massive effort in Henan to accommodate children made orphans by AIDS. They were provided with free education in boarding schools.


Some 22 schools, all called Sunshine Homes, were built across the province but lots of them remain empty.


”Children feel they are being isolated there,” says Chung To. ”Everybody in Henan knows that living in a Sunshine Home means your parents have died from AIDS.” (END/2005)

Antoaneta Bezlova

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