BEIJING (Reuters) - People in China living with HIV and AIDS are routinely being denied medical treatment in mainstream hospitals due to fear and ignorance about the disease, according to a study released by the United Nations’ International Labor Organization (ILO).
The world’s most populous nation — with 1.34 billion people — had 740,000 people infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, with 105,000 AIDS patients, in 2009, according to state news agency Xinhua, citing United Nations estimates.
HIV/AIDS became a major problem for China in the 1990s when hundreds of thousands of impoverished farmers in rural Henan province became infected through botched blood-selling schemes, but the virus is now primarily spread in the country via sexual contact.
Based on interviews with 103 people living with HIV and 23 healthcare workers, the ILO and China’s National Center for STD and AIDS Prevention and Control found that people have been refused medical care and have been discriminated against by healthcare workers.
One HIV-positive man, talking at a news conference to unveil the report, recounted how he was denied medical treatment for his back problem because of his HIV status in hospitals in Tianjin and Beijing.
“The doctor said at our hospital, many patients need surgery, and if other patients get infected, it will be a very bad thing,” said the man, who declined to be identified.
“At the second hospital ... the doctor told me: ‘I sympathize with your suffering but because of your status, I dare not operate on you’,” said the man, who is a farmer from Tianjin and added he was forced to leave his job in a steel firm after his boss discovered he had HIV.
“I’ve visited many other hospitals and encountered similar denials and excuses such as a lack of equipment.”
Beijing was initially slow to acknowledge the threat of the disease but has since stepped up the fight against it, spending more on prevention programs, launching schemes to give universal access to anti-retroviral drugs to contain the disease, and introducing policies to curb discrimination.
But in a country where taboos surrounding sex remain strong and discussion of the topic is largely limited, persistent discrimination by healthcare workers could mean that many sufferers are likely to avoid medical treatment.
Zhang Ke, deputy director of the infectious disease department of the Beijing You An Hospital, said China’s policy that people with HIV and AIDS should only be treated in designated hospitals for treating infectious diseases was one of the root causes for the discrimination.
“We should eliminate these designated hospitals,” said the doctor, who treats HIV-infected patients.
Another HIV-positive man from Hebei province, who contracted the virus through a blood transfusion, recalled how hospital workers insisted on discharging him quickly after they found out he had HIV.
“I talked to them later ... and their worry is that in rural hospitals, when a HIV positive person receives procedures, very few people would visit the hospital. They are worried about the impact on economic gains,” he said.
While it has stepped up the fight against AIDS, China has been wary of AIDS activists who have agitated for the rights of AIDS sufferers. Hu Jia, an advocate of rural AIDS sufferers, was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison by a Chinese court in April 2008, for “inciting subversion of state power.”
Another AIDS activist, former health ministry official Wan Yanhai, has fled to the United States with his family, citing pressure from authorities, according to rights group Human Rights Watch.