Monday, April 9, 2012

Increasing HIV and AIDS Awareness in Zhuhai, China

HIV/AIDS is a serious problem in China receiving a growing amount of attention. As summarized in an overview by the international HIV and AIDS charity AVERT:
There are currently an estimated 740,000 people living with HIV in China. During 2009 around 26,000 people died from AIDS. These numbers must be considered in the context of China's extremely large population which is estimated at around 1.3 billion. Although China’s HIV epidemic remains one of low prevalence overall (0.1% among adults), there are pockets of high infection among specific sub-populations and the danger of the epidemic spreading further into the general population persists. This became particularly evident in 2009 when China reported that AIDS had become the country’s leading cause of death among infectious diseases for the first time ever, surpassing both tuberculosis and rabies.
Unfortunately, as reported late last year by Michael Martina for Reuters (related photoblog post):
The number of new HIV/AIDS cases in China is soaring, state media said on Wednesday, citing health officials, with rates of infections among college students and older men rising. The Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention issued figures showing 48,000 new cases in China in 2011, the official Xinhua news agency said. Nearly 82 percent of those new cases were transmitted through sexual intercourse, Xinhua said, up from 11.6 percent between 1985 and 2005. "The distribution of HIV/AIDS cases in our country is now wider and more scattered than ever, posing great difficulties for prevention and control efforts," Wu Zunyou, the director of the Center, said according to Xinhua.
Despite growing efforts to combat the problem in China, AVERT notes that challenges remain:
International public health experts, including UNAIDS and the WHO, have commended the Chinese government for its recently implemented HIV prevention and treatment programmes. Although it cannot be denied that there has been an encouraging turn around in policy towards HIV/AIDS in China, there are still a number of political problems that are hampering the response to the epidemic. China’s continuing restrictions on civil society, free expression and free association mean that HIV-related NGOs and AIDS activists face repression and harassment from the Chinese authorities.

Although senior Chinese officials have shown an increased tolerance of non governmental AIDS organisations in recent years, local officials often hold more repressive views. Authorities in wealthy coastal provinces tend to be more lenient and supportive of the efforts of AIDS activists, whereas inland, rural areas are reported to be more oppressive of public discussion of AIDS. The old Chinese saying tiangao diyuan (“Heaven is high, and the emperor is far away”) is apt here. Local authorities in remote regions do not always implement AIDS policies made by the central government.100 Human Rights Watch have reported numerous examples of harassment and surveillance of AIDS activists and support groups, including the detainment of prominent AIDS and human rights campaigners, such as Hu Jia.
By chance, I recently had the opportunity to witness one of the organized volunteer efforts to increase HIV/AIDS awareness in China. A few weekends ago while I was walking in a shopping district in Zhuhai, Guangdong province two high school girls handed me this pamphlet:

HIV/AIDS education pamphlet handed out in Zhuhai, China

HIV/AIDS education pamphlet handed out in Zhuhai, China
Both sides of an HIV/AIDS awareness pamphlet

They also gave me two packets of tissues:

HIV/AIDS education tissue pack handed out in Zhuhai, China

The tissues had a bit of a surprise inside:

Inside of HIV/AIDS tissues handed out in Zhuhai, China including a condom and directions for use
Condom and directions for proper use

I was not the only one receiving such gifts. In fact, there were a number of volunteers in the area passing out these items to passersby.

six HIV and AIDS awareness volunteers in Zhuhai, China
The very friendly volunteers I met in Zhuhai

They were working with the Hong Kong AIDS Foundation which collaborates with a variety of groups in China such as:

  • Beijing Home of Red Ribbon
  • Centres for Disease Control and Prevention of Gansu Province
  • Centres for Disease Control and Prevention of Shenyang, Liaoning Province
  • Centres for Disease Control and Prevention of Zhuhai, Guangdong Province
  • Education Bureau of Zhuhai, Guangdong Province
  • Health Bureau of Zhuhai, Guangdong Province
  • HIV/AIDS Working Committee of Zhuhai, Guangdong Province
  • Catholic Social Service Centre of Liaoning Diocese
  • Training Centre of AIDS Prevention and Cure of Hubei Province
  • Catholic Social Service Centre of Chifeng Diocese
  • Shenyang Firebug Workshop

In a country were organized activities to raise awareness of societal issues are not a common sight in public spaces, it was particularly inspiring to meet the above volunteers and see them in action. It is worth noting that the Chinese government is actively trying to promote increased condom use -- even testing iPhone apps to give away free condoms.

I share my experience here to help raise further awareness on the above issues and to shine a light on some of the people attempting to make a positive difference. For more about HIV/AIDS in China and some of the groups attempting to improve the situation see the various links in this post (also more information and references on Wikipedia here).

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