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Drugs Know No Gender

Curiosity kills not just cats; people, too, can be victims.

Looking back, 26-year-old Xiaohua (not her real name) says she never expected things could get so bad when she first laid hands on drugs 10 years ago.

"I heard drugs can get people high," she recalled. "And I had a try."

Xiaohua was then a high-school student in Nanning, capital of south China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.

She vomited after taking her first sniff of heroin, but before long, became addicted to the drug.

"I feel sick whenever I'm caught in a fit, so sick that I keep trembling alternately with cold and fever. After getting a shot, I'll be OK," she says.

Xiaohua's sister, Xiaomei (not her real name), is also a drug addict.

Now the sisters no longer feel "high" after getting a shot as they did in the past.

"It's like taking a kind of medicine. The shot can turn me sleepy and takes away the unbearable feeling," says Xiaohua, with a cynically bitter smile.

For Xiaohua and Xiaomei, to get money for the "white powder" is the topmost concern. They admit that they are willing to do anything for that.

"It (heroin) is more expensive now. A small pinch, the size of a fingernail, costs 50 yuan (US$6), and that's just enough for a day," Xiaohua says.

At the peak of her addiction, she dragged in her businessman-boyfriend.

The man, seven years Xiaohua's senior, finally went bankrupt after they had squandered away some 600,000 yuan (US$72,000) between them.

At the end of 1994, Xiaohua was put into a correction center for drug addicts, where she was to stay for three years.

Her sister Xiaomei, who is three years younger, picked up the habit in 1997. She was then 17.

The tragedy of the sisters is far from exceptional. In recent years, female drug addicts have become a growing problem for China.

Women account for 16.7 percent of the 1 million drug addicts on police records across the country, and in some provinces, the figure is as high as 40 percent. In 2000, female drug addicts numbered 138,000 nationwide.

Police in Guangxi have reported a local drug-taking population of 50,000, of whom 7,000 "or 14 percent "are women. The autonomous region is a major stop on a drug-trafficking route which, originating in the "Golden Triangle," runs to neighboring Guangdong Province, Hong Kong and Macao.

Like the sisters, many other women have turned to prostitution for drug money.

Xiaohua admits that she began looking for "boyfriends" in hotels when she was 16. She says that for each sexual encounter she gets a few hundred yuan. "That's pretty easy. There are `boyfriends' who are so generous as to pay me 1,000 yuan for just one night of 'special service'."

The Public Security Bureau of southwest China's Chongqing Municipality has
conducted a survey among female drug addicts, and found that 95 percent of them, the youngest only 11 years old, offer "special service" to fuel their habit.

Sources with the bureau say that more than 90 percent of them suffer from various sexually-transmitted diseases (STDs).

According to Zhou Xiaolu, a member of Chongqing's anti-drug squad, the most worrying aspect of the problem is that "not just a few" prostitutes are under-aged.

The policewoman cited a 15-year-old girl who claimed to be 18 when she was caught selling sex. "She was misled into drug abuse and then into prostitution by a cousin," Zhou says.

"When she was sent to our correction centre, she had festering private parts," Zhou says.

A survey by the National Center for AIDS/STD Prevention and Control indicates that the hepatitis C infection rate among female drug addicts varies from places to place, from 8.3 percent to 79 percent.

And the syphilis infection rate was found to be ranging from 1.4 percent to 29.2 percent.

Needle sharing by female drug users places the group at the risk of HIV/AIDS, with an infection rate of about 25 percent.

Experts believe that promiscuity and prostitution among female drug addicts who have already contracted HIV/AIDS have caused HIV/AIDS to spread from high-risk groups to the general public.

Wu Zunyou, a researcher at the National Center for AIDS/STD Prevention and Control, reveals that although intravenous drug use is still the major means for AIDS infection in China, STD is visibly on the rise.

Intravenous drug use was responsible for 40 percent of the HIV cases identified in China during the January-September 2003 period, and unprotected sex, for 11 percent.

"Accurate data on STD are difficult to obtain," Wu says. "The actual rate of infection caused by unprotected sex could be around 30-40 percent."

Wu's study brings to light what he calls a "vicious cycle."

"After visiting a prostitute who is a HIV carrier, a man is likely to transmit the disease to other women including wives and girlfriends, as well as prostitutes.

"That means more men are infected, and then more women."

In one coastal province in south China, nearly half the female drug addicts are HIV positive. Experts worry that the sexual behavior of female drug addicts is the most threatening aspect for the spread of HIV from high-risk groups to the general public.

"In the past, people were not fully aware of female drug abuse, and researchers often ignored the problem," says Wu Zunyou, who has been engaged in AIDS prevention among prostitutes.

He calls for more tolerance and care towards the group in addition to setting up a prevention mechanism.

"We could provide them with skills training before reintegrating them into society. Community care is also indispensable as part of the social support system," he suggests.

However, he concludes, unless the support mechanism is in place, life for people like the Xiaohua and Xiaomei sisters will remain nightmarish.

(China Daily January 16, 2004)

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