Coal miners face long, painful death
Josephine Ma in Beijing
There are an estimated 440,000 sufferers of the debilitating pneumoconiosis lung disease but most can't afford treatment
Tian Yongsheng from Shanxi province is desperate to find a way to relieve the chest pain which has haunted him for years.
The 37-year-old former coal miner has been diagnosed with pneumoconiosis, caused by the chronic inhalation of dust deposited in his lungs.
He is well aware what will happen if he is not treated. Many of his neighbours in Dai county - all coal miners - have died of the disease after suffering great pain.
'In the five villages [in Dai county] that I knew, all men from 18 to 50 suffer pneumoconiosis,' said Mr Tian. 'Among 100 coal miners, 100 have pneumoconiosis.
'We knew nothing about the disease before and we could hardly afford the medicine because coal miners were paid very little. So many have died and the villages are left with widows and orphans.'
Mr Tian left a mine four years ago and later discovered he was suffering from pneumoconiosis. 'After the mine was exhausted, it was shut down,' he said. 'Where are we going to find the boss [to take care of me]?
Of the estimated 440,000 pneumoconiosis patients on the mainland, Mr Tian should count himself lucky. Not only has he managed to save some money over the years when he worked as a coal miner, his brother found through the internet that treatment was available from a hospital via the State Administration of Coal Mine Safety.
Mr Tian is now waiting for treatment at the hospital in the coastal city of Beidaihe in Hebei province . 'Of all the people I know, I am the only one who can come here for treatment,' he said.
Li Yuhuan , who manages the hospital, said it had treated more than 2,000 such patients in the past 10 years, and all with satisfactory results. Although the technology to wash out coal dust in the lungs with a saline solution is available, few mainland hospitals are keen to operate. The centre handles only about 150 pneumoconiosis patients a year.
'The reason is that pneumoconiosis patients are mostly poor people and vulnerable,' he said. 'If the patients are rich, hospitals will be doing this everywhere.'
Chen Zhiyuan of the centre said they charged each patient 8,000-10,000 yuan and the profit was minimal. 'We cannot charge them more because they are too poor,' he said, adding that few coal mines could afford the medical bills for their employees.
Chief physician Che Shenyan said: 'Some coal companies cannot even pay the salaries of the workers, how can they afford the treatment?' Only workers in large state-owned mines were covered by insurance.
'Other hospitals charge 3,000-4,000 yuan for simple operations like removing [an] appendix. Our operations are a lot more complicated, but we cannot raise the price because the clients cannot afford it.'
However Dr Che was eager to promote the technology because of the huge demand.
Official statistics show the mainland had 580,000 pneumoconiosis cases at the end of 2002 and about 440,000 of these patients were still alive. However, the figures represent a rough estimate because they were compiled from a 1986 survey and updated by adding about 15,000 new cases every year.
Dr Che believed the majority of the cases went unreported.
To assess the extent of the problem, the central government is planning to conduct a survey in Liaoning and Shanxi provinces in the second half of the year.
Mr Li said the government was trying to address the issue by setting up a fund to attract donations to help the workers. It was approved by the Ministry of Civil Affairs late last year and Mr Li said he was trying to generate donations from the public.
He said the government planned to give tax incentives to donors, but approval was still awaited from the State Council.
With backing from the fund, the hospital was hoping to provide treatment to 600 to 1,000 patients a year, Mr Li said, adding it was also important to encourage other hospitals to perform the operation.
'When a senior state leader visited our hospital two years ago, he said it would take us 300 years to wash the lungs of all coal miners in China if only we are doing it,' Dr Che said. 'But if 300 hospitals are doing it, maybe we can have it done in one year.'