Villagers throughout the province are dying from the virus spread by illegal blood collectors. Now a Hong Kong charity is trying to help.

(2003/03/14 SCMP)

Art is being used to mend the broken spirits of the children of Aids sufferers in Henan province.

The Hong Kong-based Chi Heng Foundation charity is providing the children with drawing materials to allow them to express their feelings about their trauma. The children are also encouraged to write a few lines in their drawings, describing their experiences, hopes and dreams.
Almost completely ignorant about Aids, many Henan villagers contracted the disease during the 1990s after selling their blood to illegal dealers who used very unhygienic methods and equipment. Syringes, for example, were shared between donors.
The villagers’ blood was usually pooled, stripped of the plasma and then injected back into the people, allegedly to prevent anaemia.
The Henan government has admitted that 150,000 people contracted HIV, but relief agencies say the figure is a gross underestimate.
Foundation spokesman To Chung said the children were angry because their parents were dying and they felt they had been abandoned by officials and exploited by the media.
He said they were also upset because people were taking advantage of their sick parents, promoting expensive but useless medicine.
Some children who had been adopted after their parents had died were physically abused by their new guardians, Mr To said.
Many of them feel that there is no tomorrow, he said.
But the foundation is introducing art to the children to show that they do have a future.
Fourteen-year-old Jie, whose mother and grandfather died of Aids, revealed in a drawing that she dreamed of becoming a doctor.
I have dreamed every day since I was very small and all my dreams are colourful, she said.
While she was attending primary school, many residents of her village died of Aids.
Villagers panicked, fearing they would be the next victim, she said.
When my mother began feeling sick – fainting and feeling weak all the time – I was scared. I thought that maybe she had contracted that horrible virus.
Her worst fears were confirmed. Jie’s mother died two years later and the little girl’s life became extremely miserable.
I work even harder hoping to become a doctor. I want to conduct research that will find a cure for the sickness, she said.
The dream is like a lamp lighting my road ahead . . . whenever I want to be lazy, I think about my mother and grandpa, and the uncountable number of patients being tortured by the illness.
Her dream is shared by 13-year-old Peng, now a fifth-grade student. Whenever people ask me what I want to be, I quickly tell them I want to be a doctor so I can save the dying and cure the injured, the boy said.
Peng accuses some doctors of being selfish because he believes his parents could still be alive if they had received better care.
Despite this, I still want to be a doctor. I don’t want to be a profiteering doctor, the boy said.
Children like Jie and Peng might not be aware that they can come to terms with their trauma through drawing.
But a clinical psychologist in Hong Kong said the therapy had been widely adopted in developed countries such as the United States.
Joanne Chu Ka-lai, who is also a speech therapist with the Step Centre for Child Development, said: Art therapy is a psycho-therapeutic discipline that utilises artistic expression as a means of facilitating the expression of thoughts and feelings that an individual may be unable or unwilling to verbalise.
Ms Chu said Aids orphans were also subject to stigmatisation, which harmed their self-esteem and resulted in problems such as social isolation.
In some serious cases, these orphans are treated so badly by their peers that they consider killing themselves, said Ms Chu, referring to a US survey conducted in 1995 by New Jersey-based scholar Jason Aronson.
While she sees art therapy as a useful treatment for the Aids orphans, Ms Chu says it is not the complete answer.
She has called for the children to be given more help such as play therapy and counselling to overcome their grief.
The media should also give fair coverage of the stigma associated with the disease when reporting on the Aids families, she said.
Although the children can express their feelings through art, Ms Chu cautioned against assessing their psychological conditions based on the drawings.
Other psychological tests would be necessary if the true conditions of the children were to be understood, according to Ms Chu.
The Chi Heng Foundation will hold an exhibition of works by Aids orphans in the art therapy programme at City Hall from March 18 to 20 to raise awareness about the cause. It will also hold a dinner on April 30 to raise funds for the orphans’ education.
Many Aids orphans were forced to quit school because their parents were left penniless. Since last August, the foundation has run a programme to sponsor the schooling of children in Aids-stricken families.
Children who can produce a medical certificate proving that either parent is HIV-positive, can attend a local school for free. The foundation pays for their fees, books and other expenses, which total between 200 yuan (HK$188) and 300 yuan annually.
About 400 children in Henan currently benefit from the scheme.

Copyright (c) 2003. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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