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Home Offers Haven to HIV Victims

Holding her breath, Yang Xiaomei enters the room.

"Don't be afraid. Only three channels can lead to infection. Please keep smiling and do not avoid handshakes. Otherwise patients will suffer from great psychological pressure," murmured a volunteer to Yang. A student at Beijing University of Technology, Yang, with other college students, was preparing to meet an AIDS-infected family of three.

Prior to World AIDS Day, the Red Ribbon Home at Beijing Ditan Hospital has held many activities to promote public awareness and knowledge of HIV/AIDS, and this was one of them.

Yang and her classmates donated money and toys to a mother and her seven-year-old daughter, both of whom are AIDS patients.

"I was infected by my husband, who visited prostitutes and died four years ago from the disease. My dear daughter is so innocent. How good our life would be if there were no such disease!" The mother's words were followed by a dead silence in the room.

"I have been looking after my daughter and granddaughter for years. We share food. I'm not infected," the grandmother said.

Yang said she was a little nervous before she came here. But after the meeting and the lecture, she felt a strong responsibility to help people infected with HIV or suffering from AIDS.

The Red Ribbon Home was established in 1991 at the Beijing Ditan Hospital, one of China's leading HIV/AIDS research and treatment institutions, with an aim of offering psychological support to people with HIV/AIDS and their families.

"The doctors and nurses here are all angels. Every one of them is no less than a family member to us," said the grandmother.

"They need our care and love very much," said Wang Kerong, head nurse at the home, stroking a patient's hand. "I feel very proud and happy that I could help them."

According to the hospital's statistics, 67 percent of people infected by HIV would commit suicide as their first response. Twenty-three people with HIV/AIDS from their hospital have committed suicide.

The Red Ribbon Home is now in need of mature psychological volunteers. Some patients visited the Red Ribbon Home repeatedly after they were released from the hospital.

For many of them, the medical workers and volunteers are the only ones they can trust.

"We have a very busy timetable and our biggest problem is a lack of funds. We have no regular funding from the government or hospital authorities," Wang said.

Another important mission of Red Ribbon Home is to hold various AIDS prevention and education activities to publicly promote understanding and care towards people with HIV/AIDS and take more active measures to fight the disease.

Many HIV/AIDS experts, lawyers, movie stars, singers, reporters and students have been invited to come and participate in activities together with HIV/AIDS patients, at lectures on AIDS treatment, informal discussions and parties.

They also have produced booklets and video programs, and opened a hotline and a website on HIV/AIDS prevention knowledge.

"The general public have such a poor knowledge and therefore so much fear towards HIV/AIDS. Some medical workers are no exceptions. We often receive patients who were rejected by other hospitals. Such a condition should no longer continue," Wang said.

Unnecessary fear due to an ignorance of basic knowledge is common in China. The Chinese idiom "turning pale upon the mention of the tiger" is used to describe something extremely terrifying and now this idiom rightly applies to AIDS.

"The only way for HIV/AIDS-infected people to get on with their lives is to keep their disease secret. It is almost certain that their employers will fire them once they know the facts," Wang said.

Wang cited two examples to make her point.

Zhang, a manager of a State-owned enterprise, was laid off after it was revealed he was carrying the HIV virus following a test before a blood donation. He went to question his boss why he was denied the right to work. The boss simply said, "you have the right but we also have a right to protect our staff."

Zhang is now working in a foreign company in another city and has been promoted. But he has to keep his tragic secret.

Wang Lifang, a good high school teacher in a rural area of Central China's Henan Province, was infected with HIV when looking after one of her students, who was injured and bleeding in the playground. Wang's husband divorced her after the incident and the whole village shunned her. She committed suicide.

There is a long way to improve HIV/AIDS knowledge, especially those who live in remote regions and receive little schooling.

Li Hua, a migrant worker in Pinxiang City of south China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, was found to be infected with the deadly virus during her pregnancy but stubbornly refused a free medical service offered by the city's Hospital for Women and Children to block mother-to-child HIV transmission.

Her reason was that she had just had a preventive inoculation in her hometown and therefore believed she would not pass the virus to her baby.

Qin Xueping, director of the hospital, worried a lot about such cases when interviewed by Health Daily, a national newspaper.

Qin said her hospital has already mastered the technology to cut mother-to-child transmission but only three out of six infected pregnant mothers in her hospital accepted standardized operations, while the other three were unwilling to co-operate.

"Most of these women are from the countryside and have received little education. Our hospital has provided every convenience for them but it is still difficult to persuade them into accepting our service," Qin said.

Beijing Ditan Hospital has been using the so-called cocktail treatment and the price of domestic drugs has dropped to more than 500 yuan (US$60) each month, which is more affordable to patients from average families.

"We have had more than 600 HIV/AIDS cases so far and about one-third of them emerged this year," said Liu Yanchun, a physician-in-charge of the hospital's Department of Infection.

"It means that we are at a critical moment. It is like a tip of an iceberg. A lot more people who have been infected remain unknown," Liu said.

(China Daily December 1, 2004)

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