"I will disinfect you 12 times when you come back." That was what 14-year-old Guo Yujie was told by her friend before she departed for Qulou Village, an AIDS plagued hamlet in central China's Henan Province, on an interview assignment for a national magazine aimed at China's teenage students in 2004.
"I dared not tell my teacher I was going to visit AIDS patients because he may not have let me go. I lied and said I had to take several days of sick leave," said Guo.
Guo, who is now a youth ambassador for AIDS education among children for the UN children's organization UNICEF, accompanied Gao Yaojie, a well-known AIDS activist to visit children whose families were affected by AIDS. Gao recently collected an award, after initial opposition from local authorities, in the United States for her role in AIDS prevention in China.
"I would be lying if I said I was not afraid. Our driver did not know he was taking us to a so-called AIDS village. When he saw the village entrance, he said his knees were shaking and he almost collapsed," Guo recalled.
"But when we saw the children, some of whom were of my age, we started to let go of the fear. I told myself, they are just like us," Guo said.
"They asked us to sit down and eat with them. I know they were not HIV carriers and there was no need to worry, but my legs could not move, and I had to summon up great courage to sit down," said Tuo Bing, another student who went with Guo to the village.
"Besides fear, there is indifference. Some of my classmates say AIDS is too far removed from their lives to worry about," Guo said, "even the children in the AIDS-affected areas do not have sufficient knowledge of the killer disease."
Zhang Dasheng, a medical psychologist in Harbin, capital of northeast China's Heilongjiang Province, believes that one of the most pressing priorities is to educate the youth about sexually transmitted diseases (STD) including AIDS.
"Ignorance leads to fear, and fear leads to discrimination and evasion of the problem, which leads to the further spread of the disease," Zhang said.
"With the right knowledge, they learn how to protect themselves when they grow up and adopt the right attitudes towards HIV carriers," he said.
China has about 650,000 people infected with HIV, in which about 75,000 are AIDS patients.
Last December, pupils and middle school students in Beijing started to receive compulsory AIDS prevention courses, including ways to use condoms and lectures on safe sex.
"Sex and STDs were and sometimes still are taboos in families and sometimes in schools, but parents and teachers have got to realize that the young need to be informed," Zhang said.
"The epidemic has affected young people and equally, young people are also part of the solution," said Dr. Yin Yin Nwe, UNICEF Representative in China.
"Children are important to the future of China. Unless the campaign gets to the mainstream youth, there is no way to stop the epidemic," she said.
"Through teaching children, we achieve a change in attitude and prevent them from adopting a discriminatory attitude," she added.
Zhang Jingdong, deputy director of the Harbin disease prevention and disease control center, said most HIV carriers in China are 20 to 40 years old, who are sexually active. Many of them have never been educated about sexually transmitted diseases.
"Educating the children and youth about AIDS can also have a long term effect. When they reach adulthood, they can adopt sensible behaviors including safe sex and refrain from drug use, and will not discriminate against HIV carriers," Zhang said.
"Only when the youth is safe can society be ultimately safe. Young people are major participants in the AIDS campaigns and they can talk to their parents and other elders and influence their attitudes towards AIDS in a positive way," he added.
(Xinhua News Agency June 11, 2007)