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Report on Sichuan AIDS town
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Gongmin Town in Zizhong County, Sichuan Province used to be a "heavily AIDS stricken area". As a trial community care and support pattern for AIDS patients, Zizhong County has created a comprehensive AIDS prevention and treatment model, led by the government, coordinated between different departments and receiving participation from all walks of society. Currently Gongmin Town has been hailed as the "lighthouse for humans fighting against AIDS".

Gongmin is a desolate small town of Zizhong County in southeastern Sichuan. When AIDS attacked the town it lost its peace and quiet. The saga began when many young and middle-aged town people began to sell their blood in an effort to shake off poverty.

The town has a population of over 50,000 with the average annual per capita income less than 3,000 yuan. Nearly 100 local people sold their blood in Henan and most of them contracted the deadly HIV doing this.

Since June 1995 Zizhong County has discovered 128 HIV infectors. Gongmin Town alone has 68 HIV infectors, scattered among 15 villages; 32 of them are now dead.

Li Xiaochun was one of the first who sold blood. Seven of his family members followed suite; they all were infected with HIV. In the autumn of 1997 he was only 37 years old. His family subsisted on several plots of poor farmland. In order to send his children to school, the idea of selling blood crossed his mind. He went to a local blood collecting station but there he was identified as a Hepatitis B Virus carrier and he was disqualified as a blood donor.

But a local fellow told him that Henan had a blood station where no health checkup was necessary. Li then traveled to Henan with only 30 yuan in his pocket.

This post was an illegal blood plasma collecting station. When Li finally arrived he found many farm workers gathered there and learned that each blood donator could give two bags of blood, about 800 to 900 milliliters. In order to save costs, the station boss put many people's blood together and used the same plasma separator. After the plasma was separated, aides returned the remaining blood cells back into the blood donators' bodies. Once the HIV virus mixed in the compiled blood, it spread quickly between blood donators. But the farmers knew nothing about this. They only knew that they could get 50 yuan each time they sold their blood. Many stayed at hotels for a few months in order to have their blood drawn every two or three days. Some were too weak to stand up because of giving their blood so frequently. A few even dropped dead on the spot.

Li Xiaochun stayed in Henan for two months. He sold blood 24 times and earned a total of 1,200 yuan but after deducting his living and travel expenses, there was hardly any money left. At the end of that year he returned home. The following July he began to have fevers and diarrhea and felt very weak. Later, in 1997, a doctor examined him and found that he contracted HIV: his fate was sealed.

His family who had once sold blood together with him also contracted HIV, one after the other.

His brother Li Xiaoqing was sent to the hospital in 2001 due to his grave ill health. After spending more than 30,000 yuan, he was sent back home for they could no longer afford the medical expenses. In his last days, half of his eye rotted away and he suffered acute physical pain throughout his body. Before he died, he murmured, "This disease (AIDS) takes a toll on people…"
Qing Zhouwei, an honest farmer, was the first HIV carrier exposed to his small town. AIDS discrimination had been haunting him like a nightmare ever since.

In 1995 he came to Henan and donated his blood four times, ultimately creating a life tragedy. Then, in 1997, he went to work at a construction site. He wanted to earn more money by selling blood. But after an examination he was told that he was infected with HIV.

"At that time, I knew nothing about AIDS," he said.

On the same day the police came to the construction site asking him where he had sold blood previously. He honestly answered the police.

A town fellow told him, "Run away. Or the police will catch you and send you to the remotest mountains or forests and you will never be able to meet your family."

The man's words made Qing panic. He borrowed 500 yuan and took the train back home that same night. After getting off the train, fearing to walk on main roads, he took desolate paths instead.

But before he got home, his bad news had already preceded him. Locals working with him had all called up their families, saying, "Qing Zhouwei got AIDS. Stay away from him!" Upon hearing the news that his son had the "dirty disease", Qing's elderly father was so enraged that he knocked his head against the wall and tried to kill himself. After the father was reunited with his son they cried in each other's arms. "I heard that once one catches this disease, he would die in a few years. Who shall the young and the old rely on?"

The villagers' attitudes upset him more deeply. He distributed candies to neighbors but the children ran away in sight of him. Villagers would take a roundabout route rather than pass by his front door. He went to wash clothes in the pond. When others saw him, they would take their clothes and leave at once. Once he came to mill grains, he saw that the boss was in shortage of hands, so he came up to give him a hand. Seeing him standing by the milling machine, the boss shouted immediately, "Stay away from my machine. Don't spread your AIDS to my machine." A village doctor was even more absurd, saying: "The wind can spread AIDS; an AIDS carrier could spread the disease even if he were buried one meter under the ground after he dies."

This was the way the local people acted when faced with AIDS. An intangible terror reigned over the small town.

An infected patient said, "I don't care how I live. I just want people to regard me as a human being."

Li Xiaochun also remembers that when the news broke that he had been infected with HIV, people refused to buy his vegetables and crops. When he went to buy something no one dared to take his money. Seeing him walking on the street, people turned away from him quickly. He gave cigarettes to the village cadres. They first put them in their pockets and threw them away after he left. During those years he felt that his whole world had collapsed. His beard and hair were long and untidy because no hairdresser was willing to cut them. Once he went to sit in a teahouse; other customers quickly stood up and left. After he left, the teahouse owner threw away the "AIDS cup" he used and even the bench he sat upon.

In 2001, HIV infectors of Gongmin Town became progressively ill one after the other. Poverty and disease compounded their deteriorating living conditions.

According to a survey covering the family income status of 25 infectors, their per capita annual income was only 400-1500 yuan and each family owed debts of 4,640 yuan on average. Most of them felt hopeless and pessimistic about their future.

The wife of Lin Tengquan, an AIDS infector, unable to cope with great social pressure, killed herself by drinking pesticide.

Some HIV infectors completely lost hope and threatened to take revenge on society. Yin Rongbin, Director of Zizhong Bureau of Health, told a People's Daily reporter, "One year several AIDS patients came to my office and claimed that they would blow up bridges if they couldn't get any money. Some even waved knives and asserted that they would kill someone."

These seemingly crazy acts are not out of character for AIDS patients; discrimination against AIDS is the source of their resentment.

February 2, 2002 became a landmark day. On that day the China-UK HIV/AIDS Prevention and Care Project was launched in Zizhong County. As a result Zizhong became a trial community care and support pattern for AIDS Patients.

An AIDS expert group came to Gongmin Town that March. Initially villagers just watched them from afar. Soon they found that these experts shook hands with AIDS patients, patted their shoulders, and even had dinners and drank tea together.

In order to dispel the farmers' fear of AIDS, these experts went to give them lessons on AIDS in their homes. "Once they were clear about AIDS, their attitude soon changed," said Wu Xiaomin with the Zizhong Disease Prevention and Control Center.

In the training, many details were very impressive. A Chengdu expert took out a piece of bread and let an AIDS infector divide it and then each had half of the bread. Another expert drank water from a cup just used by an infector. These trivial behaviors influenced the villagers around. They later said, "Experts aren't afraid of being infected. What are we afraid of?"

Face to face education exerted great influence over the villagers. Six months later the expert group from the China Center for Disease Control and Prevention came to conduct an investigation about the progress of the AIDS learning program. They met an old man on a village street and asked him "How does AIDS spread?" The old man raised three fingers, "Three avenues: blood, birth and sex." Experts smiled joyfully. And almost all Gongmin residents could correctly answer such questions.

Gongmin County also established a "Gongmin Home" and held two activities a month. The staff there taught AIDS infectors not only how to prevent AIDS and how to treat AIDS but also living skills. Additionally they organized information exchanges and entertainment activities. Pu Cunxin, an AIDS prevention advocate, praised the "Gongmin Home" as the "AIDS Infectors' Garden of Eden".

Zizhong County has held 42 training courses and trained more than 4,000 people in total, including intuitional cadres, primary and middle school teachers, infectors' families and entertainment personnel.

Discrimination against AIDS patients has gradually dissolved. Many HIV infectors working at other places have returned to their small hometown. This time they met not cautious but friendly eyes.

Gongmin HIV infectors are now willing to disclose their disease because they will not be discriminated against and they also can receive special care and support from all various areas of society. They are now living in a big warm family.

The local government also put forward a series of policies on caring and support for HIV infectors in March 2002. The Zizhong Finance Bureau has increased the special fund used for AIDS prevention and treatment yearly. The government hands out consolation funds to HIV infectors on important festivals. Starting from July 1, 2004, each infector gets a monthly allowance of 130 yuan from the government.

The Zizhong Civil Affairs Bureau allocates 5,000 yuan each year to relieve the poverty of HIV infectors. In 2005, the county government began to shoulder the fees for AIDS patients and their families to join the New Rural Cooperative Medical System.

Agriculture, forestry and husbandry departments have formed the technical aid team. The Agriculture Bureau provides free high quality seeds to HIV infectors; the Forestry Bureau launched the project to return farmland to forests and grassland and provides favorable services for infectors in applying for a forestry license; the Husbandry Bureau provides them with young domestic animals.    

The Zizhong Education Bureau incorporates AIDS prevention and treatment knowledge into health education courses for primary and middle schools. And children of HIV infectors receive free primary and middle school education. 

The Zizhong Taxation Bureau and Administration of Industry and Commerce exempt agricultural taxes and administration fees for HIV infectors. Electricity suppliers provide free illumination power for HIV infectors.

The health department established medical service centers in 15 villages. Village doctors provide medical services for HIV infectors and AIDS patients in their homes, along with free medical checkups. 

Support policies play a key role in eliminating discrimination against AIDS. The government has created a comprehensive prevention and control mode against AIDS, involving the guidance of local governments, coordination between departments, participation from all walks of life and self-support from the infected people.

A honeycomb briquette factory, the first enterprise for HIV infected people, was established in the town by the China-UK program office in July 2002; it cost 35,000 yuan (US$4,741). The factory enjoyed a boom at the beginning, but closed in 2003. Although it was not a successful undertaking it has motivated the infected villagers.

A couple named Li Bin and Wei Ting are both AIDS victims. They were still quite poor in 2002, having only an old house. Then the animal husbandry bureau of Zizhong County delivered a pair of piglets to the family in order to help them escape from poverty. Five months later Li Bin and Wei Ting sold the pigs and earned 1,200 yuan (US$162.61), making the couple extremely happy. They began buying piglets from outside areas and selling them out after raising and breeding the animals for a certain period of time. This allows them to earn 70,000-80,000 yuan (US$9,486-10,841) every year. Additionally, Li and Wei have also constructed a two-story building with the help of the local government.

A British program officer once came to Gongmin Town for supervision and inspection. He questioned whether HIV infected people could live without discrimination but found it was true after his personal investigation. He said that this had even not been achieved in Britain despite of years of efforts.

Zizhong County has set a good example for the world in the fight against AIDS, a vice-minister of UK Department for International Development wrote in his report to the British government.  

The program concluded in November 2006, but officer Zheng Shihua does not worry that discrimination would reappear. "The brightest highlights of the Zizhong project against AIDS reflect the full implementation of policies and sustainability," said Zheng.

Li Bencai, a legendary AIDS victim

In September 2002, Li Bencai opened a teahouse. There were a lot of AIDS posters on the walls and Li also provided free condoms and promotional materials in his teahouse. He has a name card, on which his title was Aids Advocate.

At the beginning, most of the guests came just out of curiosity. More and more people came to the teahouse as the discrimination against AIDS gradually ceased and the teahouse became better known as well.

Li Bencai also met the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who visited China in 2003. The prime minister was very interested in Li's teahouse and said that he would like to go there to drink tea.

Li Bencai ran his teahouse for more than three years and earned 50,000-60,000 yuan (US$6,776-8,131). Then he started a wood processing business. This September he and his friends contracted for 200 mu (1,333 ares) of barren hills and planted 10,000 saplings. Li regards this budding forest as "green bank".

Infected victims help others

Huang Changqi, 43, living in Lijiacun Village, got infected with AIDS by selling blood. He once sank into a depression and wanted to give up. In 2004, the villagers committee allocated 5 mu (33.33 ares) of fish ponds to Huang Changqi for free; this has brought more than 2,000 yuan (US$271) to Huang every year.

Sichuan Province was hit by drought this May and the rice in Lijiacun Village was dying. Huang Changqi decided to pump out his fishponds in order to save the rice. Although Huang's fish all died he still felt relieved to know that the villagers' rice crops had been saved.

Li Bencai always shows his kindness to others as well. He once heard that a schoolteacher had to support a big poor family all by himself.  Li then provided financial assistance for the teacher, who was deeply moved by Li's help and wrote a letter of acknowledgement. Afterwards they became friends, often exchanging greetings.

He Yong, an AIDS patient, became very ill and was sent to hospital in 2002. The local government exempted all his medical charges and the villagers also donated more than 1,000 yuan (US$136) to He Yong, who ultimately died of the disease on September 29. He said before his death that he would like to donate his organs in order to contribute to developing medicines that cure AIDS.

The AIDS Troupe is well-known

There is an AIDS Troupe in Gongmin Town; all its members are AIDS victims. The members write scripts themselves based on real life and give performances in Sichuan Dialects, in which they tell how people show their concern for AIDS patients instead of prejudice, as well as how the patients support themselves instead of giving up.

The troupe made their debut on November 27, 2003 in Gongmin Town. There were a lot of people in the audience that day despite a heavy rain. Then the troupe went to Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, to perform. In 2004, the actors gave a public performance in Beijing. They were also invited by CCTV to do a program recording.

The farmer performers, who have no real acting experience, won prolonged applause because of their sincerity rather than their stagecraft.

"I felt very nervous when I went on the stage for the first time, and the sweat continuously dripped down from my back," said a performer named Qing Zhouwei. Qing believed that the discrimination against AIDS would not be eliminated if people feared making a public appearance.

A happy ending: two AIDS victims got married

Both Wang Daiying and Cao Xueliang are infected with AIDS. Nevertheless, they got married in 2003 and more than 200 villagers attended their wedding ceremony at the town, including a dozen infected people.

The discrimination against the disease has now been completely eliminated in this small western town. The China-UK project concluded one year ago. A comprehensive prevention and control mode against AIDS has been established in Zizhong Town. This small town now represents a bright beacon of hope in the fight against AIDS.

( by Zhang Ming'ai and Yang Xi, December 17, 2007)

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