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Man United Players Raise AIDS Awareness in Guangzhou
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Three Manchester United players met with a group of Chinese AIDS-affected children to promote public awareness of the disease in China during a UNICEF charity event on Thursday in Guangzhou, capital city of southern Guangdong Province.

As part of the "Unite For Children, Unite Against AIDS" campaign, Ryan Giggs, Rio Ferdinand and Chinese forward Dong Fangzhuo drew pictures and played games with 13 AIDS-affected children from Guangdong, Guangxi and Yunnan.

A few hours earlier, fanatical Chinese supporters had invaded a United training session forcing the players to seek temporary refuge in their dressing room.

But 15-year-old Lan Lan (a pseudonym), whose father died of AIDS and whose mother is currently suffering from the disease, was more blase.

Lan Lan admitted he had never heard of Ryan Giggs. "I don't like football, I prefer basketball - my favorite sports star is Michael Jordan," he admitted.

When the teenager guessed Giggs was in his forties because of "some grey hairs", the 33-year-old player, a UNICEF ambassador, pretended to be heartbroken, wipe away the tears and to leave the room.

"He is pretty funny - he made me laugh," Lan Lan said. "From the way he looked at me and talked to me, I felt he cared. He is not like a superstar to me, but a good friend."

Discrimination against HIV/AIDS sufferers is rife in China, particularly in rural areas, and Lan Lan's family recently moved house when the rumor mill started turning.

"When people asked whether my mother was affected by AIDS, I told them it was all gossip, my mother just caught a cold," said Lan Lan, who took a five-hour bus from his new house in Diancheng Township, in Guangdong, to attend the UNICEF activity.

"If I had told the other kids that my mum had AIDS, they would stay away from me and I would have had no friends," he said.

"If people just accept these children as who they are, they will find they are really brave, determined and strong. They have their own dreams and aspirations," Giggs said.

"After today I hope that the Chinese people can learn more about the facts of HIV and AIDS and treat these children as normal kids, the same as everyone else," he said.

"We need to get rid of the discrimination so that no one needs to lie about anything or feel embarrassed about who they are just because they are affected by HIV/AIDS," Ferdinand added.

The latest official statistics available showed that in November 2004, there were 8,644 AIDS orphans in China. Unofficial academic estimates indicate that at the end of 2005 there were about 140,000 orphans, and 370,000 to 570,000 children under 18 years old living in households affected by HIV/AIDS.

Fear of discrimination is so widespread that children often choose not to reveal that they have been affected by the disease, thus losing out on healthcare, education and, subsequently, employment benefits.

"Although the Chinese government has an anti-discrimination law in place, it is not being fully implemented. When it comes to the local level, it is variable," said Ken Legins, chief of HIV/AIDS at UNICEF China.

"Sports celebrities play huge roles in advocacy. They remind the public that it is important to speak and listen to children affected by HIV/AIDS to find out their problems and what they want," he said.

Since 1999, the "United for UNICEF" partnership between UNICEF and Manchester United has raised over two million pounds for UNICEF programs and has benefited over 15 million children worldwide.

"We plan to provide more than 300 million Chinese children, 90 percent of China's youth, with the correct information on HIV/AIDS by 2010," said Dr. Yin Yin Nwe, Representative of UNICEF China. "With the correct facts we can eliminate fear, because fear is often the cause of discrimination."

Eleven of the children will be mascots for United's friendly game against Guangzhou Pharmaceutical on Friday, the last match of the club's Asian tour.

(Xinhua News Agency July 27, 2007)

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