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China's new leader led cover-up into hospital scandal that saw up to 300,000 people infected with HIV

// News // World News
  • Henan Li was governor of Henan province in 1998 when people contracted HIV from state-sponsored blood-buying rings with unhygienic practices
  • The stigma against people with HIV runs especially deep in China, from being unofficially barred from government jobs to being expelled from school
  • Hospitals routinely reject people with HIV for surgery out of fear of exposure
  • An estimated 780,000 people have HIV in China

By Jill Reilly

PUBLISHED: 04:02 EST, 30 November 2012 | UPDATED: 04:19 EST, 30 November 2012

China's new prime minister is the man behind one of the biggest medical scandals of all time.

In the 1990s between 50,000 and 300,000 people were mistakenly infected with HIV in Henan province and Li Keqiang, the man who led the cover-up is now China's new leader.

Mr Li was governor of the area in 1998 when people contracted HIV from state-sponsored blood-buying rings with unhygienic practices.

Hypocrisy

Hypocrisy: Chinese Vice Premier Li Keqiang presides over a State Council AIDS Working Committee, in Beijing on Monday. Mr Li was governor of Henan province in 1998 when people contracted HIV from state-sponsored blood-buying rings with unhygienic practices

Activists have urged Li to acknowledge the government's responsibility for the disaster and provide compensation, with little success.

There are no official figures because the Chinese government has never admitted or apologised for what happened but now Mr Li is desperately trying to rectify his shadowy past.

Earlier this week Li shook hands with Aids victims on Chinese television and promised to let NGOs play a more active role in battling the disease.

The stigma against people with HIV runs especially deep in China, from being unofficially barred from government jobs to being expelled from school.

Tough talk: During a meeting Monday with a dozen activist groups Li said health facilities that discriminate against people with HIV would be severely punished. An estimated 780,000 people have HIV in China

Tough talk: During a meeting Monday with a dozen activist groups Li said health facilities that discriminate against people with HIV would be severely punished. An estimated 780,000 people have HIV in China

In China, hospitals routinely reject people with HIV for surgery out of fear of exposure to the virus or harm to their reputations.

But last Friday, following Mr Li's orders, the health ministry banned hospitals from turning away infected patients.

During a meeting Monday with a dozen activist groups, he said such discrimination would be severely punished, according to Li Hu.

After years of denying AIDS was a problem in China, the country has significantly improved care for patients, but the lingering stigma sets back those advances.

One of those infected was Wang Pinghe who was just 12-yearsold when he had a chest operation and was contracted HIV.

He did not realise he  was ill but suffered fevers which last for weeks and some mornings he found he could not even open his eyes.

After leaving school, he worked in factories and then dug irrigation systems in western China.

Now aged 28, Mr Wang was diagnosed with full-blown Aids in May. 'My parents cried for four days. I am their only son,' he told The Telegraph.

Mr Wang wants the tumor in his liver removed before it becomes life-threatening. But the 28-year-old Chinese villager knows it will be hard to find a hospital that will do the operation because of his diease. 

Lasting legacy: 28-year-old HIV patient Wang Pinghe shows bottles of medicine pills he has been taking. He was infected when he was just 12-years-old

Lasting legacy: 28-year-old HIV patient Wang Pinghe shows bottles of medicine pills he has been taking. He was infected when he was just 12-years-old


'In my hometown, not a single hospital is willing to operate on people infected with HIV,' said Wang, who traveled to Beijing from Runan county in the central province of Henan to try to draw the attention of central authorities to the issue by speaking to the foreign media.

'This is not discrimination by one single person but by an entire country.'

Now, as more people rail against the myriad inequalities that plague Chinese society, people with HIV are becoming increasingly willing to assert their right to fair treatment.

One man recently claimed the spotlight by altering his medical records to hide his HIV-positive condition so he could get surgery for lung cancer. The man, who went by the pseudonym Xiaofeng, told state media he had been turned away by two hospitals.

His story sparked a firestorm of criticism directed at both the hospitals for rejecting him and thepatient for exposing medical staff to risks they were not aware of.

Shunned: In my hometown, not a single hospital is willing to operate on people infected with HIV,' said Mr Wang

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'Xiaofeng was smart. When he felt that his life was in danger, he found a way to save himself,' said Li Hu, a Tianjin-based activist who helped Xiaofeng and later publicized the case online. 'But this way isn't good for anyone, be it the patient or medical workers. Now the question is: Can we find a way that is favorable for everyone?'

China has made significant strides in tackling the epidemic, with the AIDS mortality rate falling 64 percent from 2002 to last year. The government last year increased HIV treatment by 50 percent — reaching three-quarters of the adults and children who require it, according UNAIDS.

An estimated 780,000 people have HIV in China. There has been an increasing trend of cases transmitted through sex rather than intravenously, with sex workers and gay men considered most at risk, said Guy Taylor, a communications officer for UNAIDS.

Treatment: With improved access to lifesaving drugs, people with HIV in China are living longer, which means more are seeking treatment for other ailments

Treatment: With improved access to lifesaving drugs, people with HIV in China are living longer, which means more are seeking treatment for other ailments

About 70,000 new cases were reported in the first 10 months of this year, largely through sexual transmission, as compared with about 93,000 for all of last year, the Health Ministry announced this week at a news conference ahead of World AIDS Day on Saturday.

With improved access to lifesaving drugs, people with HIV in China are living longer, which means more are seeking treatment for other ailments.

Chinese law bars medical facilities from refusing to treat people with HIV, but activists say discrimination continues because the law spells out no serious punishments.

Many patients cannot afford the time and expense of taking hospitals to court.

The China Alliance of People Living with HIV/AIDS, a Beijing-based network, said that a survey last year found dozens of patients being turned away by facilities throughout the country — in some cases even leading to deaths.

'I feel that if a doctor refuses to treat a patient who is HIV positive, it is a crime akin to murder,' said the group's coordinator, Meng Lin, who recounted being denied a CT scan by a Beijing doctor in September, after he told him he had AIDS.

Dr. Wu Zunyou, who leads the government's HIV/AIDS center, said he believes attitudes will change. He said Chinese health workers report about 700 cases of accidental contact with the every year and none have resulted in infections. He welcomed the public debate the Tianjin case triggered.

'The debate causes medical workers to think about the issue and health facilities to improve their management, so there should be fewer chances for such things to happen in the future,' Wu said.

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