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Asia

HIV/AIDS still a taboo for many Chinese

In China, much has changed over the past decade. AIDS is no longer ignored or labeled a "foreigner's disease", as happened in the 1990s. But people with HIV still face many difficulties.

Quiet Garden counseling center

Quiet Garden counseling center

At the government You An Hospital for Infectious Diseases in Beijing, nurses hurry up and down the hallways, as patients wait for the doctors. In a back room on the ground floor, Duan Yi is sitting in front of a gigantic poster showing a sprawling tree. The 28-year-old is one of 50 volunteers involved in the "Quiet Garden" project. They counsel HIV-infected people.

"While they are waiting for their check-up or the results of their AIDS test, they can eat something here or just talk - about AIDS," says Duan Yi. "There's no other place where you can do that. But here we can share information and experiences."

You An hospital in Beijing

You An hospital in Beijing

Living with a stigma in society

Duan Yi is HIV-positive himself. He found out four years ago. Although he wants to make other people aware of the disease, he hasn't even told his own parents that he's infected. The stigma is too bad. "I'll tell them when the time comes. They'll come under even more pressure than myself, I want to spare them the trouble as long as possible."

AIDS patients and HIV-infected persons are still ostracized and discriminated against in China. They lose their jobs, become socially marginalized. A UNAIDS study came up with shocking results last year, says the program's China Director, Mark Stirling.

"Roughly 40 to 50 percent of the general public has misunderstandings around this, to the extent that they wouldn't share chopsticks with somebody who was living with AIDS or HIV. Or they felt uncomfortable or didn't want to be in the physical proximity with somebody who was living with the virus; or thought that maybe they were at risk if they were to shake hands, or to hug, or to kiss somebody who is living with HIV. Clearly, this is all wrong!"

AIDS patients still face a stigma in China

AIDS patients still face a stigma in China

Public awareness campaigns

It's not as if Beijing hadn't done a lot. Only a few years ago, the first AIDS awareness spots were shown on state television in China. This spring, Beijing lifted the ban on HIV-infected foreigners entering the country. Nowadays, the authorities are taking the disease seriously, admits Song Pengfei, one of the first Chinese who came out with his infection ten years ago. These days, he runs a project offering psychosocial help for AIDS patients, including drawing lessons.

"I have been active in the field for ten years. And during this time, the government has definitely become more active in addressing AIDS and accepting AIDS groups," says Song Pengfei.

A woman walks past an AIDS billboard in a Beijing subway

A woman walks past an AIDS billboard in a Beijing subway

The government and NGOs

But Song also knows the limits of his work. The authorities are suspicious of non-governmental organizations or NGOs, which face a lot of pressure. UNAIDS Director Stirling has called on the government to change its approach, arguing that many risk groups including gays, drug users or prostitutes just cannot be reached via state-run programs. "A successful response to HIV in China will require a strong role, participation and contributions from NGOs, and there needs to be strong partnership between NGOs and government in the delivery of those services."

But things are going in a different direction, with NGOs complaining about new restrictions, particularly when they campaign for the underdogs and take up their cause. This year, the founder of China's best-known AIDS NGO Aizhixing went into exile in the US because he feared he would be arrested in China. So far, Song Pengfei with his art project for AIDS patients and Duan Yi from the "Quiet Garden" can continue their work without interference, but only as long as they don't raise awkward questions.

Author: Ruth Kirchner/tb
Editor: Grahame Lucas

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