Li Keqiang

Li Keqiang's meeting with NGOs injects new life into HIV/Aids fight

Li Keqiang's ground-breaking meeting with specialist NGOs signals a new stance by leaders in efforts to stem the spread of the disease

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 December, 2012, 3:29am

In the week leading up to yesterday's World Aids Day, the mainland's NGO community was abuzz over a meeting that premier-in-waiting Li Keqiang called with representatives from grass-roots HIV/Aids prevention groups.

It rekindled fresh hope for the fight against the epidemic but Aids activists and academics have said the central government needs to do more to bring all parties on board if it was serious about containing the disease.

During the meeting with NGO representatives on Monday, Li, who will succeed Wen Jiabao as premier in March, promised to address the stigma associated with the virus and discrimination against people living with HIV/Aids.

He also promised a basket of initiatives including possible tax breaks and the procurement of services from NGOs.

Murong Feng , from the Hebei Light of Love Care Group for People with HIV/Aids in Baoding , Hebei , said he was surprised when he was asked to join the meeting and was impressed by Li's pragmatism and saw new hope in his messages.

"We've have been working with people with HIV/Aids for so many years and for the first time we've felt like we're finally being rewarded somehow," he said.

Murong said he had endured double discrimination in terms of access to public services and government support as someone with the virus and as the head of a grass-roots group caring for those with HIV/Aids.

On top of the constant struggle for funding, he said his group paid taxes like a for-profit enterprise because it could not register with local civil affairs authorities as an NGO owing to discriminatory government policies.

"I hope the central government can follow up on its promises to give us more space to play a more important role in fighting the epidemic, as the vice-premier [Li] has promised," he said.

The meeting followed Li's personal intervention in the case of a lung cancer patient who was denied treatment by public hospitals in Tianjin until he lied and claimed to be free of HIV.

When Li was Henan's provincial governor in the late '90s he was criticised for an alleged cover-up of a massive HIV outbreak in the province.

The mainland's health authorities this week reported 68,802 new HIV infections between January and October, with sexual transmission accounting for 85 per cent of cases. More than a fifth involved men having sex with men.

Some critics said Li should have met victims of the outbreak in Henan instead of 12 domestic NGOs hand-picked by the Ministry of Health's China Centre for Disease Control and Prevention.

Professor Li Dun , a member of a Ministry of Health subcommittee on Aids and STD prevention, said the meeting was a symbolic gesture because Li Keqiang had yet to even bring the ministry on board.

A former Tsinghua University sociologist, Li Dun wrote to the ministry calling for greater disclosure of information at public hospitals to help fight discrimination against patients with HIV/Aids.

He also urged the ministry to promulgate a long-delayed guideline document so that medical staff could be better trained about potential exposure to the virus in clinical practice.

He said he was tasked with drafting the guideline document and it was presented to the Ministry of Health in March, 2007.

"The only time they called me was two years later when they asked me if I still had a copy of it because they couldn't find the original one," Li said. "This has once again demonstrated that the ministry cares about neither the patients nor the medics."

He said that if medical staff were better prepared for the risks of exposure to the virus, they would be more willing to take in patients with HIV/Aids.

The Ministry of Health recorded 1,043 cases of medical exposure to the HIV virus last year but no infections were reported.

Li Dun said the ministry should abolish the so-called designated hospitals for patients with HIV/Aids, where patients have struggled to receive proper treatment.

However Duan Yi , a representative from Beijing Youan Hospital's Home of Loving Care for patients with HIV/Aids, said abolishing designated hospitals would be a disaster for patients given the rampant discrimination they suffer at general hospitals.

"Hospitals in general are not allowed to discriminate against patients on the grounds of HIV status under the law, but they can always come up with a reason to turn patients away," he said.

"Even worse, hospital authorities don't want their doctors to admit patients with HIV/Aids because of concerns it might scare away other patients."

Duan said appropriate government regulations and their effective enforcement were critical in addressing the plight of patients with HIV/Aids.

Another issue the government should look into is the lack of access to medical insurance for patients with HIV/Aids.

"Getting access to medical insurance in some tightly intertwined communities would almost certainly amount to telling everyone their status," Duan said.