Families suffer the legacy of China’s blood scandal

(2006/12/01 SCMP)

Living in the heart of the mainland’s HIV/Aids epidemic, Zhou Hongqiang had heard countless horrific accounts of how people were infected with the disease through illicit blood farming schemes.

But the vegetable vendor in the city of Zhumadian , in central Henan province , never imagined that Aids could affect his own family until his 19-month-old son died of it in June.

Mr Zhou’s experience began when his son fell ill in August last year, resulting in blood swelling in his skull. After check-ups, including an HIV screening, the boy was given two infusions of a blood-clotting agent at the Zhumadian People’s Hospital.

The boy recovered from the head injury, but a few months later he began to show Aids-like symptoms, including mouth ulcers and a recurring fever. He was diagnosed HIV positive.

Mr Zhou said he and his wife had a monogamous relationship and had never engaged in selling blood, but to the horror of the Zhou family, his wife also tested HIV positive after the death of their son. Her infection is most likely the result of a bite from the boy while she breast-fed him, unaware of his HIV status.

The family’s plight is a chilling reminder of a tragic chapter in the mainland’s public health system.

In the mid-1990s, impoverished farmers in Henan and Anhui were duped into selling blood to illicit blood centres, and, as a result of unsanitary practices, many contracted Aids and died. Tainted blood is also believed to have found its way into mainland hospitals, infecting hundreds of patients in the late 90s.

Official statistics show that 69,000 mainlanders have been infected with HIV/Aids through transfusions or by selling blood.

Among them are more than 140 haemophilia patients, believed to have been infected by using Factor VIII, a blood-clotting agent produced in the mid-90s by the Shanghai Research Institute of Biological Products.

The infection epidemic forced the central government to tighten safeguards for blood supply, by abolishing decades-old, for-profit blood donation schemes and closing hundreds of substandard blood centres.

But a depressed Mr Zhou said tainted blood products caused his son’s death. The hospital has denied any wrongdoing and local courts have refused to hear his case. Ten years have passed [since the scandal], how come such a tragedy could still happen to my son? he asked.

According to Henan doctor Gao Yaojie , who won wide respect for exposing the unscrupulous blood farming schemes in Henan, the tainted blood issues have never been resolved and unsafe blood continues to be a major source of HIV/Aids infections in some areas.

Although some have disputed Dr Gao’s assessment, the stark warning underscores the daunting task mainland authorities face in averting a looming public health crisis.

The Ministry of Health has reported that the number of new reported cases of HIV/Aids on the mainland has shot up 27.5 per cent this year, to 183,7333, with 37 per cent of the cases discovered this year linked to drug use and

28 per cent to unprotected sex.

However, the ministry has kept the number of estimated cases of HIV/Aids unchanged at 650,000 – less than 0.1 per cent of the total population.

Analysts have warned against any slackening in prevention efforts. Chung To, founder of the Hong Kong-based Aids organisation, the Chi Heng Foundation, said the Aids epidemic, which had crippled several sub-Saharan countries, was unlikely to occur to the same extent on the mainland. But China should look to Cambodia and Thailand for pointers to the future trends of HIV/Aids infections, given that these countries share many social, economic and culture aspects with the mainland.

HIV/Aids prevalence in Cambodia is inching towards 3 per cent and an estimated 2 per cent of people in Thailand are now HIV positive. Even if the prevalence reaches 3 per cent on the mainland, the implications would be far-reaching because the population base is far greater, Mr To said.

The number of Aids orphans in China gives some idea of how the disease’s impact may escalate. About 76,000 mainland children have lost parents to Aids and this number could rise to 260,000 by 2010, according to Xinhua.

Worried over the rapid spread of HIV/Aids, the central government has instigated a flurry of schemes in the past two years.

Earlier this year, the State Council issued a new regulation on HIV/Aids and a national action plan for 2006-10, which establishes overall guidelines for Aids prevention.

Under the guidelines, a wide range of activities has been carried out to raise awareness and reduce the stigma associated with having the virus.

However, the government has held out on tackling some pressing issues linked to its spread. Many local governments have refused to provide financial assistance to those devastated by the HIV/Aids epidemic.

That’s the aspect of immediate concern to families such as Mr Zhou’s. I’ve lost my son and my wife is going to die in a couple of years, he said. I don’t know what I can do now.

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