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Peer Education Helps Children Dispel Discrimination Against AIDS
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"There is more that you can do." These are the words on the homepage of the Children's Heart and Red Ribbon website, written by the website's founder, a 15-year-old girl.


"With this website I can share my knowledge about AIDS with my peers and views about children living with the disease or under its shadow," said Guo Yujie, a student at the No. 1 Middle School of the Gu'an County in north China's Hebei Province.


Guo first learnt about the disease in April 2004, when, as a young journalist for a magazine, she visited an "AIDS village" in central China's Henan Province to conduct interviews.


She met 34 AIDS-affected children, at least one of whom had lost relatives to the disease. Many people in the province contracted the fatal disease when, in the mid-1990s, they sold blood to illegal blood centers which lacked adequate sanitation measures.


Guo remembers one of the children very clearly. His name was Wang Jianshe and he was 13 years old. Both his parents had died from the disease. Together with his young brother, he lived on the meagre income their grandmother earned from farming her small patch of land.


Wang had no toys and no friends. His classmates were scared of being infected by the horrible disease and he became an outcast. If someone lost a pencil or a rubber, Wang was the number one suspect. Gradually, the boy became melancholy and silent.


"I was deeply moved by children like Wang," recalled Guo Yujie, "I wondered who had stolen their smile. And what we could do to help them?"


With the knowledge she had learned from school, Guo started her website (www.txhsd.com.cn) in September 2004. The website, funded by herself and by the China Children's Press and Publication Group (CCPPG), received 200 replies from netizens half a week later. Many even offered to donate money to children in the "AIDS villages."


Soon schools invited Guo to give lectures to her peers. So far, she has helped nearly 400 students to educate their peers about the disease.


Guo is not alone. Peer education about AIDS has been conducted by CCPPG in thirteen cities around China for four years. Over one million children were involved in the campaign to teach their peers about AIDS and help remove the discrimination against those infected and affected by AIDS.


Eleventh grader Zhao Ziwei from Beijing admitted that he was ignorant about AIDS four years ago. "I thought the disease was highly infectious and I should stay away from the infected," she said.


But through lectures from her peers, she changed her opinion and joined the educators herself.


Statistics newly released by China's Ministry of Health showed that the number of people officially reported as being infected by HIV had risen by 27.5 percent since the beginning of the year.


By the end of October, a total of 183,733 people had been officially reported to have contracted HIV, the ministry said.


But according to estimates by the ministry, the WHO and UNAIDS, China has about 650,000 people living with HIV, including 75,000 who have developed AIDS.


Young people's knowledge of the disease is limited. In a poll conducted by CCPPG among students in primary and middle schools, a quarter of over 4,000 interviewees still believed AIDS was a distant threat, and nearly 20 percent were not fully aware of the danger of sharing needles for drug use.


Charles M. Rycroft, Chief of the Communication Section of UNICEF Office in China, spoke highly of peer education. "(It is) helping to build a new generation of young people who have learned the facts about HIV/AIDS and can share this information with others, as well as care for those infected or affected by the disease," he said.


"The attitude and behaviors of older people are difficult to change, which is why young people have the greatest potential to positively influence the way people look at the epidemic and those it infects and affects," Rycroft said.


However, the implementation of peer education is no easy task.


In Fufeng County of northwest China's Shaanxi Province, students with the Famen Middle School recently launched a campaign to distribute paper with AIDS-related knowledge in a public square. Most passers-by refused the leaflets or threw them away. Someone even said sarcastically, "I am not an AIDS patient."


Promotion tactics have changed and positive results are expected. Students from the No. 8 Middle School of Shanghai are encouraging senior citizens to act as peer educators. "They have time, passion and influence," said Wang Lu, a teacher with the school.


And the Beijing No. 11 Middle School is considering providing AIDS education for migrant workers.


Long Hanwen, a 10-year-old girl from the Miao ethnic minority in southwest China's Guizhou Province, said that curbing AIDS should be combined with poverty alleviation. "If the parents in mountainous regions could afford the tuition fees, they wouldn't be selling blood any more," she said.


Zhou Yule with a primary school in Nanjing, capital city of east China's Jiangsu Province, said that more films should be made to teach children about the disease.


"I hope more children can join me to run the website," Guo Yujie said.


(Xinhua News Agency December 2, 2006)

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