To be infected with HIV is just getting an illness, not a sin.
That was the opinion of an HIV/AIDS carrier expressed two years ago during an interview on Tell It Like It Is, a popular television talk show.
His words were simple but strong enough to reflect the desire of HIV/AIDS patients for dignity and better understanding from society.
The two HIV/AIDS carriers on the program agreed to attend on condition their bodies would be covered by a folding screen and they would be introduced to the audiences with fake names.
Even their voices were changed for the broadcast because in their view "if people know, I will lose everything."
Their worries are reasonable.
Too many stories of discrimination have been reported. These include children who cannot go to school because they have HIV-positive parents; shops that will not sell goods to a woman whose husband has AIDS out of fear that the terminal disease can be transmitted by contact or banknotes; crematoria that do not accept bodies of AIDS victims despite hospitals making it clear that the bodies have been disinfected.
Discrimination against HIV/AIDS patients does even more harm than the virus itself, said Pu Cunxin, a popular film and theatre star in China.
A long way to go
Eighteen years have passed since the first AIDS case was discovered in China in 1985, but people's fear of and discrimination towards AIDS victims do not seem to have eased, said Pu Cunxin.
He shared his latest experience when shooting the first TV play to have a theme of AIDS last year in Zhuhai, the nearest Chinese mainland city to Macao.
Entitled "Lost Paradise," the 30-episode TV drama tells the story of a man who contracted AIDS from a blood transfusion and how he bravely battles the fatal disease with the help of friends and relatives. Pu played the protagonist.
The production unit was given an unexpected cold reception during shooting. Few people wanted to rent them their places for shooting scenes when they heard the TV drama was about AIDS.
Taxi drivers would stop, ask them to leave their car and drive away when they heard their discussions about the stories of AIDS in the play. Restaurants didn't allow them to finish dinner just because their discussions of AIDS were scaring away other guests, said Pu.
"People still think that only those who are filthy and degraded will have the disease," Pu said.
Pu and his crew made up their minds that they should work even harder to produce the best TV drama possible because of the need to encourage society to use every means to promote public awareness of HIV/AIDS prevention and provide more understanding of and support for HIV/AIDS patients, said TV drama director Yu Genggeng.
The Beijing Youth Daily launched a poll on www.rongshu.com in July to demonstrate the seriousness of people's ignorance about AIDS.
More than 15,000 people cast their votes for five questions about HIV/AIDS and their attitudes towards HIV carriers and AIDS patients. A total of 73 percent admitted they knew "little about HIV/AIDS."
"That's why education is so important here," said Pu. "A lack of basic knowledge of how HIV/AIDS spreads and thus how to protect themselves has led many people to contract the fatal disease unknowingly."
In October, the Ministry of Health released a figure that might have astonished many - the number of people with HIV/AIDS in the country by July had topped 1 million. This was an increase of 16.7 percent on the same period in 2001.
Experts warned the number may climb to 10 million by 2010 unless efficient prevention and control measures are adopted.
It is this ignorance about the disease that causes fear and discrimination against people infected with HIV/AIDS, said Ma Xiaowei, vice-minister of the Ministry of Health. "If we want more than 1 billion people to know about it, then it is clear we have a long way to go," Ma said.
Treat them fairly
Research proves that contact such as shaking hands or eating together does not involve any risk.
"Yet science pales before people's fears of the disease," said Xu Lianzhi, a doctor at Beijing You'an Hospital, one of the earliest hospitals in China to offer medical treatment to HIV/AIDS patients.
People are still being rejected by hotels, restaurants, clinics, and are subjected to abuse of passers-by, she said.
The 69-year-old received her first AIDS patient at the hospital in 1989. Since then, Xu has been engaged in trying to arouse public care of those infected with HIV/AIDS.
In addition to traveling across the country to spread knowledge of AIDS, Xu initiated the AIDS hotline and established "Home of Loving Care" in the hospital which provides medical treatment, counseling and training for HIV/AIDS patients.
It now has more than 800 volunteers providing services to patients, including medical workers, actors, farmers and students.
She once received a phone call through the hotline from a young man with HIV/AIDS spoke gloomily about his life and his desire to live in isolation.
Xu was able to trace the young man's home, following the address he offered. But she did not find the young man there - just an elderly woman who said there was nobody with that name living at the address.
Xu later discovered the woman was the mother of the young man. "If some of your friends or relatives get the disease, they deserve better care and at least a fair life," Xu said.
"In this way, they will feel they have not been abandoned by society and will therefore develop a sense of responsibility to protect society but not act out of revenge."
Xiao Li, a 25-year-old HIV carrier who was infected via a blood transfusion at high school, said people became especially sensitive about discrimination once they had been infected the disease.
"I think the real things we need are dignity and the chance of a fair life," he said. "Sometimes, care and sympathy cannot compare with fairness and equality."
Xiao Li was pleased to learn that more than 60 percent of voters on the internet poll had opted to "care for and treat them better" when asked how they would treat their friends who had HIV/AIDS.
World AIDS Day last year was themed "live, let live," appealing for more care and respect for HIV/AIDS sufferers and their right to life.
Our real enemy is the virus and not the patients, Xu stressed.
(China Daily March 31, 2003)