SCMP Friday, December 1, 2000

Aids village suffers in silence


The village of Wenlou has been devastated by Aids and the victims abandoned to a painful death as authorities try to cover up a phenomenon that has terrifying implications for China.
Nobody knows how many people in the village in Henan province are HIV-positive, nor do they know how many have developed Aids.
In the past two years 30 of the 800 residents have died from the disease, while at least 10 others are dying at present. Of 155 villagers tested, 95 were found to be HIV-positive.
The people are now feeling the socio-economic effects of the disease. They cannot sell their produce, mainly lettuces and onions, and a Wenlou stamp on an ID card can lose people their jobs. Young women cannot find husbands and women from other villages refuse to go near Wenlou's men.
Doctors at the local Shangcai county hospital, lacking basic understanding of the disease, turn away Aids patients and even refused treatment to a villager who had injured his leg.
"This is not a major problem, there are just a few cases," an official at the Shangcai County Health Department said.
The villagers feel they have been left to die by petty local officials fearful of a scandal in their neighbourhood and complain they have received no medical help from the Government and were warned not to speak out.
Cheng Gaotian, 53, ignored the warnings. As he spoke, his three-year-old grandson, Wei Wei, ravaged by Aids and perhaps days from death, winced and buckled in his arms.
"The hardest thing for me is I watched my daughter-in-law die, and there's nothing I can do for my grandson," he said.
The problems in Wenlou, which could indicate an Aids timebomb in rural China, stems from both legal and illegal blood banks with poor hygiene standards that toured the country from the early 1980s paying for blood.
Wenlou villagers flocked to give blood, making a relative fortune of US$5 (HK$39) each time and contributing to a pool of unscreened blood.
"My daughter and son began donating blood when they were 15 and 16-years-old. For each time my son donated blood, we bought a large wooden beam to build the roof," said a middle-aged woman, whose daughter died of Aids in July and whose 29-year-old son lay dying in bed.
"At first families would try to keep it a secret. Villagers would ask questions when they saw someone losing weight and looking sickly, but the family would say it was just a cold. No one wanted to let it out. They didn't know what it was," said a young man whose mother has Aids.
When several people died, villagers became scared and started avoiding families with sick relatives. Local hospitals had never seen the disease before and did not diagnose Aids.
Two doctors, Gui Xien and Gao Yaojie, heard about the "mystery illness" and started coming to the village every few months with basic medicine, food and Aids information. It was Dr Gui's tests that revealed the shocking statistics and the pair have often been driven out of Wenlou by angry officials, fearful they will be punished for allowing the blood stations to thrive.
But there are signs the problem is not unique to Wenlou.
Two people died from Aids last year in a nearby village, a resident said before being told by a village elder to keep quiet.
"We don't have many. Wenlou has a lot. Go to Wenlou," he said.
Dr Gui took his evidence to Beijing last year and the ripple of publicity has already shamed officials into some action - earlier this week, three dying Aids patients were taken to hospital.