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Gao Yaojie: a Crusader for AIDS Prevention

A wrinkled woman in her seventies has devoted the last seven years to educating people from her own expenses about the prevention of venereal diseases and AIDS and the crackdown of medicine swindlers. People regard her as "the first person to promote AIDS awareness in rural regions," and some foreign media say that one can see characteristics of Mother Teresa in her.

In 2001, the Global Health Council granted Gao Yaojie the Jonathan Mann Award for Global Health and Human Rights, and she spent all $20,000 in award money and $10,000 in donations for the printing of books about the prevention of AIDS and venereal diseases. In July 2003, her remarkable contributions in the cause of anti-AIDS won her the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service, Asia's equivalent of the Nobel Prize. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan commended her as an activist in the education of AIDS prevention in China's rural areas.

Gao is a retired professor at the Henan Institute of Traditional Chinese Medicine, an expert in gynecological cancer, a deputy to the Seventh People's Congress of Henan Province, and a researcher at the Henan Provincial Research Institute of Culture and History.

First Contact With an AIDS Patient

It was by accident that Gao embarked on the road of anti-AIDS education. On April 7, 1996, a Henan hospital received a woman patient but found it difficult to diagnose her disease. Gao was invited to attend the consultation. At last, the patient, surnamed Ba, was diagnosed with HIV due to a blood transfusion several years earlier. The patient cried and appealed to Gao, saying, "Doctor Gao, how is it that I cannot be cured, for I just took a blood transfusion?"

"I don't want to die!" Ba said. "My husband and my child can't live without me."

Ten days later, the patient died, at the age of 42. Fortunately, neither her husband nor her child was infected by HIV.

It was Gao's first time to see an AIDS patient. Ba's painful expression and heartbreaking cry deeply hurt Gao's heart. As a doctor, she could do nothing but watch the disease take the life of her patient. For several consecutive days, Gao had no appetite and slept poorly. And the worse thing: that patient's blood transfusion came from an infected blood bank, which meant she was the tip of an iceberg that had just emerged from the water and even more lives would be lost if no measures were taken to stem the spread of HIV. In the meantime, Gao also noticed that in the two years from the patient's infection to her death, none of her family was infected, proving the possibility of successful control of the spread of the disease. But the premise is that people should be aware of the urgency in AIDS prevention and grasp prevention knowledge as much as possible.

After Ba died, her husband slept before her tomb for more than 10 days, repenting for his requirement for a blood transfusion in surgery for his wife. Gao felt very sorry about that. At the time, most AIDS prevention education was devoted to stressing such transmission sources as unprotected sex and drug use, overlooking the danger of blood transfusion. This fact aroused a deep concern for life and a strong sense of social liability in Gao's heart. Before long, she decided to shift her focus from clinical treatment to AIDS prevention education.

"As a doctor, I can only treat at most dozens of patients a day," she thought. "But as an activist of AIDS prevention, every day I can educate at least hundreds of people so as to save even more lives." Gao hopes to do her utmost to help society understand, be concerned with, and finally keep away from AIDS.

Committed to AIDS Prevention

All through my interview with Gao, her husband, Guo Jiuming, stayed close-by, occasionally refilling our teacups with water.

"We used to lead an easy life," he chimed in. Right after their retirement, the couple, both doctors, enjoyed a monthly salary of more than 2,000 yuan each, an advantageous income by the standards of their city, Zhengzhou, Henan Province.

But starting from 2000, Guo has prohibited his wife from managing their money, because "she donated almost all our savings to AIDS patients and their families." The couple, however, lived in frugality, their dish expenditure being only 200 yuan a month. "My clothes, medicines, and eggs are all presented by others," said Gao, projecting a mental contentment.

On one hand, Gao keeps a simple diet for herself. But on the other hand, she
is so generous that she has spent all her prizes and remuneration in printing materials for AIDS prevention. In order to spread the pamphlets, the aged woman has traveled all streets and lanes on bicycle and visited different places. A total of 770,000 copies of four-page pamphlets edited by Gao herself have been printed out, and 750,000 of them have been distributed, more than the printing and distribution figures of any governmental institution.

A sharp contrast with other women her age, Gao wears no ornament save for a wristwatch--not even a ring. Although her salary is now managed by her husband, who appropriates only 700 yuan to her every month, she still retains control of her remuneration and income from lectures. Last year, Gao gave a lecture at the Medical Center of Fudan University and earned 6,000 yuan. Later, she earned 800 yuan from a lecture on family planning in Gongyi, Henan Province. All the money was donated by Gao in a sum ranging from 50 yuan to 500 yuan to AIDS patients and orphans whose parents had died of AIDS.

Gao has also sponsored and edited a tabloid, Knowledge of AIDS Prevention, which has published 530,000 copies in 15 issues. Except for the first issue, all the following issues were funded by Gao herself, costing her 3,000 yuan to 5,000 yuan each. She also buys medicine on her own expenses for patients and sends money to them. In the autumn of 2001, Gao carried out a survey on the knowledge of AIDS prevention. Of the more than 10,000 people surveyed, less than 15 percent had a correct understanding of HIV transmission and AIDS prevention, and most of them were utterly ignorant of HIV transmission through blood.

In order to expand AIDS prevention education, Gao edited the book The Prevention of AIDS / Venereal Disease, which has been published four times for more than 300,000 copies. She spent all her $20,000 in award money from Jonathan Mann Award for Global Health and Human Rights and $10,000 in donations from the Ford Foundation in printing 150,000 copies of the book. Every day, 10 to 100 copies of the book are given free to medical staff, patients, and patients' families in rural areas. After the book's reprinting in August 2001, the Women's Federation of Henan Province, the provincial epidemic prevention station, and the provincial library were presented with some 20,000 copies each and were commissioned to transfer the books to grass-root units and individuals in rural areas. Soon, Gao received piles of letters from different places asking for the book; most of the letters came from Henan Province. Some provinces, including Hainan, Hubei, Guangdong, and Yunnan, and the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, have used this book as the teaching material for their AIDS education classes. Some people persuaded Gao not to continue such a business at a loss. Gao replied, "Money is not brought in when one is born and will not be taken along as one dies."

"One should do something for the world," she said. "I feel happy if I can do something significant."

At 5 a.m. on March 29, 2001, Gao boarded a train from Zhengzhou to Zhumadian, Henan Province. Fiver hours later, she arrived in Zhumadian and immediately got on a coach to Xincai. Because of a traffic jam, that journey took more than nine hours. During that long period, Gao's two young companions occasionally stretched their heads out of the window for fresh air, but Gao was kept cramped in the bus with no water to drink. When they finally arrived at their destination, Gao's feet swelled and her legs were so painful that she could not walk and could hardly stand. That experience has passed, but even today, Gao still has a lingering fear.

"I was really afraid that I could never stand up again," she said. "There are still so many things to do for AIDS prevention, and I can't fall down."

To Live Selflessly

Entering Gao's two-room apartment, I did not see a single piece of decent furniture. The only costly thing was a computer donated by students of Tsinghua University three years ago. It was cold winter, but the couple did not use heating in order to save money. According to Gao, her home has become a complaint and consulting center for AIDS patients. Every day, she receives endless letters and phone calls, with people inquiring about the disease or telling her their grievances of being discriminated against. On average, she answers dozens of phone calls and replies to nearly 10 letters a day. Some people do not understand, saying that she has asked for it.

"In my view," Gao said, "one should not live simply for himself or herself but should think of others. An owl is born to eat mice, and a dragonfly is born to eat mosquitoes. Man should be also born to do something. I think everyone should pay for society, instead of gaining benefits by doing harm to the public or others."

Next, Gao will continue her AIDS prevention education and will write more books to let people know all about AIDS and its prevention, and to show people that AIDS is not that horrible. She will also commit time and efforts to solving the existence, education, and psychological issues of AIDS orphans.

"I am clear that my efforts will not be paid off," Gao said. "What I will harvest is nothing more than people's support and respect. My power as a single person is limited. It is impossible to save all the AIDS patients even if I sell my humble apartment. But I hope that my efforts will stimulate society at large to watch and be concerned with AIDS."

With these words, Gao was so excited that tears flushed down her face.

Seeing her wrinkled face and tear-filled eyes, as well as the couplets on her home's wall reading, "For the sake of health for every one, I would rather live in poverty," and thinking of my colleagues' praise for her "too strong love and too soft heart," I remember that Harri Holkeri, president of the 55th UN General Assembly, once complimented Gao Yaojie before the worldwide media. "Knowledge is the best vaccine for AIDS," he said. "In China's Henan, there is a volunteer dedicated to AIDS prevention education. Her stories are touching, and her spirit is admirable."

(China Pictorial February 4, 2005)

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