Meng Lin, an HIV carrier, made a difficult decision recently, for which he was overwhelmingly criticised online by medical professionals: he advised an HIV-positive friend who checked into hospital with an appendicitis not to reveal his status, for fear he would be turned away.
Meng, a co-ordinator of the secretariat of the Chinese Alliance of People Living with HIV/Aids, said he felt bad that deception was necessary, but he had to make a choice between telling his friend to inform the doctors and watching the friend being denied an operation that need not expose medical staff to the virus.
His friend successfully underwent the operation, but Meng was criticised after saying on his microblog afterwards what he had advised. 'I have seen too many Aids/HIV patients who had to leave hospital because doctors refused to treat them, even in the top hospitals in Beijing,' he said. 'It is a problem that should be taken seriously by the Ministry of Health and dealt with by law.'
A 2006 law on the prevention and control of HIV/Aids stipulates that those infected have the right to marriage, employment, medical care and education, and that medical institutions should not make excuses or deny treatment. But despite years of awareness campaigns, HIV/Aids patients say they still face unfair discrimination from society, including where some least expect it: hospitals. They say they are frequently denied medical care once their HIV status is revealed, and some have had to hide the condition from doctors or choose not to go to hospital.
Some doctors turn down HIV/Aids patients by saying they should seek treatment in a specialised infectious-diseases hospital, but these hospitals generally lack the medical capabilities of general hospitals.
Meng recalled two cases of people denied treatment at Beijing's top hospitals. One patient was suffering from pancreatitis and the other from hydronephrosis, a kidney disorder.
An increasing number of people are infected with the virus and suffering from the disease.
In February, the secretariat issued a report saying that HIV/Aids patients 'generally cannot receive surgical operations needed to treat diseases other than Aids or receive such services in a timely manner'. The alliance found that the problem persisted all across the country, not only in small cities and counties, but in first-tier cities such as Beijing, Shenzhen and Chongqing .
The plight of HIV/Aids patients seeking treatment for other conditions was highlighted by a woman in Guangdong who suffered burns over 85 per cent of her body but could not receive proper treatment for four months. Because of the burns, she had to lie naked in a general hospital that did not have a burns unit, and was given antibiotics and nutrition supplements. She did not receive proper medical attention until the deputy chief of the Guangdong Health Department, Liao Xinbo, was alerted by media reports in late September and visited the woman with a group of specialists.
'Medical staff are no different from the general public in terms of their conception of Aids,' said Dr Zhang Ke, who specialises in infectious diseases at Beijing You'an Hospital and has devoted more than a decade to treating Aids.
A doctor who has never treated or even seen an Aids patient is no different from an average person on the street - they are likely to be biased, and it can be overcome only by communication, Zhang said.
He cited a talk he held in Harbin, Heilongjiang, where a patient described the difficulty of seeking proper medical treatment.
It was the first time many doctors there had come into contact with an HIV/Aids patient, and the account of the struggles moved many of them to tears. After hearing the patient's story, the doctors said they wanted to help but refrained because of pressure from their hospitals, superiors and colleagues. Many doctors still believe that operating on HIV/Aids patients is very risky, even though there have been no cases of medical staff contracting the virus during an operation in China.
'We realised then that the two parties had never seen eye to eye on the issue,' Zhang said. 'It is not a popular idea to bring an HIV/Aids patient in for surgery.'
Several doctors at the talk became volunteers for the Beijing Sunshine Doctors Consulting Service Centre, an NGO founded by Zhang in 2007 for doctors to go to remote areas and perform volunteer operations. Most of the doctors have kept their volunteer work from their colleagues.
Zhang said the government should encourage general hospitals to open infectious disease departments where HIV/Aids patients could receive consultations rather than be sent to specialised hospitals that are less equipped to handle other medical problems.
Meng said eliminating discrimination against HIV/Aids patients should be a top priority, and health authorities should realise the serious nature of the problem. 'The problem should be solved within the system,' he said. 'Now it is like a game where patients go to an emergency room because they feel they are likely to be turned down by outpatient services, and if one hospital turns them away, they go to the next one.'