With his sons at a boarding school dozens of kilometers away, Qumochung can see them only once every several months. But the 37-year-old Tibetan villager considers the reluctant choice worthwhile.
"Only if they can be spared of the horrible disease," said Qumochung, referring to an incurable endemic bone disease to which he himself also falls a victim.
In Basheng village of Aba Tibetan-Qiang Autonomous Prefecture in Sichuan Province, where Qumochung resides, the Kaschin-Beck disease haunts. It causes painful swelling in joints and retards limb growth, resulting in dwarfism in the most severe cases.
Aba, located on the southeastern edge of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau and with 55 percent ethnic Tibetans among its population, has reported the highest incidence of Kaschin-Beck in China since the disease was diagnosed there in the 1950s. About one-fifth of the prefecture's villages are located in regions susceptible to the ailment. The patients were counted as more than 40,000.
The endemic disease usually hits people in youth. Most patients will lose the ability to work when they grow up and be trapped in a life of poverty.
Its cause remains unconfirmed. Some experts hold that ingestion of certain kind of fungus contained in highland barley, a staple food for local people, and low iodine and selenium intake may be contributing factors.
In light of the environmental factors, the government has to move students to schools outside their hometowns.
Beginning last year, with an annual investment of 334 million yuan (about 47.72 million U.S. dollars), the Chinese government has launched a five-year program to reduce the incidence of the disease and lift the Aba region out of poverty.
One of the goals is to send a total of 26,000 school-age children outside of their hometowns by the end of 2009.
Qumochung's sons, together with 910 children from five neighboring townships, are now being schooled in Nanmuda township, each receiving a monthly food subsidy of 110 yuan (15.7 U.S. dollars) from the government.
"I used to have a bad sleep with the fear that my children might be ill like me someday," said Qumochung. "But now they're growing and studying in a healthy environment. I feel so relieved."
Safe drinking water is also available to 126,000 residents in villages where the disease prevails. Free medical care and lodging is provided to 5,528 patients who have severe Kaschin-Beck disease.
In areas where the disease situation is too severe to be suitable for continued living, whole villages are being moved to safer places.
The migration project began in Aba last year. With an investment of 1.1 billion yuan (157 million U.S. dollars), a total of 17,067 households, or nearly 70,000 people, will be moved to new homes away from the disease-prone region by 2013.
He Wentao, an official of Aba's development and reform commission, said new houses are being built for the migrants and water pipes are paved, a key measure to purify drinking water for farmers and herdsmen who once shared their water with livestock.
Qumochung and 17 other herdsmen families from Basheng village have moved into a new residential areas, and the remaining eight families will be moved by year's end.
"A 1,300-meter-long drinking water pipe was built in our village. Doctors told us the purified water is good for our health," he said.
"The measures are paying off. In five to 10 years, the effect of the comprehensive treatment will be shown," predicted Pei Fuxing, a doctor in charge of clinic research and treatment of the disabling degenerative disease.
Pei said the aim was to cut the rate of new cases to 5 percent in ten years from the current 20 percent.
Fights against another endemic, hydatid disease, is also in progress in Ganzi, another Tibetan autonomous prefecture in Sichuan.
The potentially fatal parasitic disease, which affects both animals and humans, infects nearly 40,000 people in Ganzi and leads to an annual economic loss of 94 million yuan in its livestock industry.
Since 2007, the provincial government has injected 1 million yuan annually to each of the 18 counties under the prefecture for endemic prevention and treatment. Patient screening, health education and infection monitoring are also in progress.
As of last October, more than 6,000 patients had undergone free formal treatment.
The prefecture government is also mapping out a comprehensive 10-year plan for hydatid disease prevention and control, aiming to reduce the infection rate among children under 10 by 40 percent by2015 in each county, and by 70 percent as of 2020.
(Xinhua News Agency March 12, 2009)