A decade ago, few on the mainland knew of HIV. Yet the blood supply, mixed and passed freely, had become a lottery pool of death. The victims struggle to understand their fate When Liu Ji was hurt in a traffic accident seven years ago, his injuries did not cost him his life. But the hospital operation that saved him might prove fatal. During the operation, doctors gave Mr Liu a transfusion of 900ml of blood infected with HIV. The blood had been provided by a local 'blood-head' - a dealer operating on the street outside the hospital waiting to match donors with needy patients. One of the two men who donated the blood used in the operation was a runaway murderer from the northeast who, before his execution, tested positive for HIV. At the time of the operation, Mr Liu was 30, a father of two with a good job in an electric power plant and owner of a car and several properties. He and his wife were among the most well-off families in Shuozhou, Shanxi province. Last year he was found to be HIV-positive. 'My whole life has drastically changed since then. I felt that God had given me up. I had thought about committing suicide,' says Mr Liu, who is now 37. Bearded and tanned, he still looks quite healthy, except for the herpes scars scattered on his face - a common symptom of Aids. At first, Mr Liu was obsessed with a hatred for the doctors who had given him the transfusion. Months after he learned about his infection, he still ached to kill them all with a powerful explosive, he says. What pained him deeply, he says, was an attempt by parents to exclude his 10-year-old boy and nine-year-old girl from their school. 'It was first suggested by the parents of my kids' classmates. Due to my fierce opposition, my kids finally were not forced to drop out, but they told me that other students just avoided them at school.' With the benefits from intensive treatment that costs 5,000 (HK$4,700) to 6,000 yuan a month in Ditan hospital, Beijing, Mr Liu can at least relax a little. At the price of making public his status as an HIV patient, he took legal action against the hospital in September, for neglecting to test the donated blood. He is seeking 4 million yuan in compensation. He hopes to be discharged from Ditan in the next few days to hear the verdict in a court in Shuozhou. 'I have confidence that I will win but expect I will have to appeal since I am afraid the compensation money will not be quite satisfactory.' Suddenly thumping his bed in anguish, Mr Liu says: 'After I die, who will be willing to marry my wife, if they learn that I died of Aids? What's the use of money then?' As unhappy as his situation is, he is in many ways better off than Li Ru, a female patient living in impoverished Shangcai county, in Henan province, ground zero of the nation's Aids epidemic. A villager of Wenlou - often dubbed the 'Aids village' - Ms Li contracted the virus in 1996 when she sold her blood to a blood station licensed by the county's health bureau. The price of 45 yuan for an 800ml donation was enough to feed her family for two months. She sold her blood three times in one year. Local Aids activists say 1,500 of Wenlou's 3,100 residents have been infected with HIV/Aids. Officials say the village has only 400 HIV carriers. In Henan, donors who gave 800ml would also receive a 400ml donation so as to prevent anaemia and speed up recovery, cutting down the time until their next donation. Although the collection system used disposable needles, the recuperative blood injected was a mix from other, untested donors. Ms Li started to show symptoms in 1999. For fear of spreading the 'strange disease', a mysterious to villagers then, she thought about taking her life with rat poison or sleeping pills. Even now she keeps these means of suicide close at hand. 'I never expected that I could survive to this day, if not for my children.' Ms Li breaks down in tears whenever she mentions her twins, now aged 11. But the sufferers of the disease face more than crippling poverty and an all-too-certain future. Once, when Ms Li went to the nearest town to buy vegetables for a festival, the seller asked where she was from. Floundering, she said: 'South of the town.' The seller instantly realised where she came from and dumped all the vegetables she had touched onto the ground. 'The saddest thing to me is the prejudice of society,' she says. 'I donated blood in response to a message from the government - that blood donation is honourable.' Encouraged by Aids campaigners, activists and other pioneers, Ms Li has regained confidence in herself as more being more than just an Aids patient. She decided to set up a house for the 30-odd orphans in her village, all left behind by parents who succumbed to Aids and some of whom are already HIV-positive. 'I know clearly that my days are numbered,' she says, 'and I want to do something before my death. These orphans are just too pitiful and will just die off without timely help.' Ms Li now struggles to fight off infections. She stopped taking her medication more than a year ago, although it is available free in the provincial hospital. A monthly checkup in Zhengzhou and round-trip transport cost her 250 yuan. She would stay overnight at the cheapest 'hotel' - a couch in the changing room of a bathhouse, priced at 5 yuan. 'Now this money seems too much to me. I just want to save the money for my kids instead of wasting it on a doomed person like me.' Gao Yaojie, a doctor who has worked for the past seven years on increasing Aids education, argues that a cover-up by officials has worsened the epidemic and made life harder for those infected. She points to a regulation stating that children abandoned by infected parents are not allowed to be adopted by well-off families. Or, she says, consider the fact patients shun treatment which can prolong their lives. 'Most patients in rural areas are illiterate and they would rather believe the slick talk of untrained folk doctors than take the government's free drugs,' Dr Gao says. 'Meanwhile, the government is unable to set up a medical system covering all patients. There are just too many.'