Aids fight being lost to prejudice and ignorance

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 10 December, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 10 December, 2008, 12:00am

China's leaders were out in force on World Aids Day last week. President Hu Jintao visited a Beijing hospital, along with likely future premier Li Keqiang , to meet HIV-positive patients. Two days earlier, Premier Wen Jiabao was in Anhui , returning to some of the Aids-affected villages he had previously visited. There was blanket coverage of both trips in the media; a sign of how far the battle against Aids on the mainland has progressed.

Unfortunately, though, it is a fight that the authorities are losing. The number of new cases continues to rise at an alarming rate, a 45 per cent jump in 2007 alone, despite the government having spent 3.9 billion yuan (HK$5.52 billion) on Aids- prevention programmes between 2005 and 2007. And, for all the photos of Mr Hu and Mr Wen shaking hands with Aids sufferers, there is little sign that their worthy efforts are doing anything to break down the stigma associated with the disease.

A potent symbol of the failure to stem the rise in cases came this month with the release of a short film designed to educate migrant workers about Aids, starring the popular actor and former construction worker Wang Baoqiang . With some 200 million migrant workers away from their families, they represent the government's worst nightmare: a mobile, poorly educated group that could spread the HIV virus to every corner of the mainland.

Many of them have no idea of what Aids is, let alone how to protect themselves from catching it. With 75 per cent of reported cases in Beijing involving people from other provinces, it is clearly a priority to address that lack of knowledge. By attempting to do that with a short film, though, the authorities demonstrated that, not only have they failed to learn from the lessons of other countries battling Aids, but they have not assessed the impact of their own past campaigns against the disease.

There is no evidence that such films do anything to increase Aids awareness, no matter how famous the stars appearing in them are. Last year, both Jackie Chan and Yao Ming appeared in widely shown Aids infomercials. But the number of HIV cases is still increasing, while those most at risk - sex workers, gays and intravenous drug users - seem no more aware of the danger they face. On the contrary, current statistics reveal that 50 per cent of Beijing prostitutes don't use condoms and that the incidence of transmission among homosexuals is rising.

That alone speaks volumes about the impotence of the education programmes on the mainland. Worse still is the failure to eradicate the widespread prejudice against Aids victims. A recent survey by UNAids revealed that more than two-thirds of respondents wouldn't want to live with someone who was HIV positive, while almost half would refuse to eat a meal with a sufferer.

Evidence from other countries suggests that it is grass-roots campaigns aimed at high-risk groups that are the most effective way of both educating people about the disease and changing the perceptions of the public towards sufferers. But, on the mainland, high-risk groups are either criminalised, like prostitutes and drug addicts, or marginalised to the point of invisibility, as with gay people. At the same time, Aids activists and grass-roots non-governmental organisations are often treated with suspicion and, in some cases, routinely harassed by local officials.

If the authorities are serious about tackling the Aids crisis - and the number of people who are HIV positive is certainly far higher than the current estimate of 700,000 - then they need to fundamentally change their attitude to those most at risk. There needs to be an acknowledgment that the educational programmes in place are not working, and more support and funding for grass-roots organisations. That will be far more effective than producing films with celebrities, or photo calls with senior officials on the one day a year the world's attention is focused on Aids.

David Eimer is a Beijing-based journalist