China AIDS patients dying because of "tragic stigma"

BEIJING (Reuters) - Chinese AIDS victims are dying needlessly because a “tragic stigma” prevents them seeking help in a country where one fifth of people think the disease can be passed on by sharing a toilet, a top activist said on Thursday.

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The government has promised to hand out free, Chinese-made drugs to anyone infected with the disease and the country’s leaders have met those living with HIV/AIDS but there is still widespread ignorance about how it is spread.

Two thirds of the 6,000 people questioned for a recent survey of six cities said they would be unwilling to live with an infected person, and a fifth said they would be unwilling to care even for a relative with the illness.

Nearly 10 percent even thought working in a room with an infected person would be enough to pass on HIV, according to the report commissioned by UNAIDS and partners.

“Everywhere I have gone...they have reported to me the high levels of stigma, ostracism and discrimination that people with HIV/AIDS experience in China,” said Edwin Cameron, a South African Supreme Court judge who is HIV positive.

“This is a tragedy because the Chinese government has a very good treatment program,” he added during a visit to China to help raise awareness.

Cameron said that while 35,000 to 40,000 people with AIDS were on treatment, more than double that number needed drugs and were scared to be tested, or even to pick up the results of blood tests because of the result of being labeled HIV positive.

“People are sick and dying of AIDS and all of it is unnecessary,” he said.

Last year China officially had 700,000 people living with HIV/AIDS and expected 50,000 new infections this year,

It is officially illegal to discriminate against those with the disease but ignorance means signs banning victims from places like gyms and bathhouses are common and blood tests sometimes required for jobs or hospital operations.

The government has also sent out mixed messages, with sporadic crackdowns on domestic activists and visa bans on most foreigners infected with the disease.

But Wang Longde, head of the Chinese Preventative Medicine Association, said he hoped the visa rule will go by the end of the decade and overall things had improved from a few years ago when police would wait outside his office to arrest patients on the grounds that they must be infected if they were visiting him.

Reporting by Emma Graham-Harrison; Editing by Nick Macfie