February 15, 2007 / 2:12 PM / 13 years ago

China AIDS activist says under house arrest

BEIJING (Reuters) - An aged AIDS activist in central China said she remained under house arrest on Thursday despite abandoning plans to travel to the United States to collect a prize, but she vowed to keep exposing the spread of the disease.

Gao Yaojie helped bring to light the spread of AIDS in her home province Henan, where during the 1990s commercial blood stations often controlled by officials spread the HIV virus among poor farmers eager to sell their blood.

No senior officials have ever been prosecuted or publicly punished for the scandal.

A retired doctor in her eighties, she was due to travel to Washington in March to be honored at the Vital Voices Global Partnership annual awards. But she told Reuters that from early February police blocked her from traveling to Beijing to obtain a visa.

Gao said that on Wednesday she promised not to go to Washington and asked her sister who lives in Los Angeles to collect the award.

“I had no choice. I had to consider my family and the threats to them,” Gao said, using a phone restored only after she agreed not to go to Washington.

But on Thursday morning, four police officers remained on guard outside her apartment in Zhengzhou, capital of Henan.

“I think they’ll keep me detained until March,” she said. “They don’t want me to talk about AIDS, especially to foreigners. But if we don’t speak about it, AIDS will keep spreading, and I’m worried about how it’s still spreading through blood transfusions.”

Vital Voices and the State Department have expressed concerns about Gao’s detention. Officials in Zhengzhou have refused to answer questions from reporters about Gao.

On Monday, Gao was visited by the deputy Communist Party boss of Henan, Chen Quanguo. The official People’s Daily Web site (www.people.com.cn) reported that Chen came “bearing the solicitations and good wishes for the Lunar New Year of the party and government”.

Chen thanked Gao “for her contributions to the province’s educational, health and AIDS prevention and control work”, the report said.

Gao’s account of the official’s visit was quite different. She said Chen denied encountering AIDS sufferers in the overwhelmingly rural province, where even official counts say there are over 25,000 cases, most infected through blood transfusions.

As of late October, China had officially recorded 183,733 cases of HIV, including 12,464 already dead. But many people at risk are not tested, and some experts fear the real number is much higher.

“I’m not going to stay quiet. The danger hasn’t passed, it’s spreading,” Gao said, speaking with a crackling Henan accent.

Unsanitary blood transfusions and abuse of injected drugs, such as heroin, are speeding the spread of the disease across central and western China, she said.

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