AIDS in China: non-profits say there’s 'a long road ahead' in battling stigma

"AIDS doesn't spread through kisses": a photo from the "SMILE" campaign.
 
The HIV virus is spreading more quickly in China than in any other country in the world, notably among the young and those over 60 years old. Despite the availability of free treatment, non-profit organisations say there is much work left to be done in China. Their work is complicated by the fact that non-profits are still officially illegal there.
 
The number of people infected by the HIV virus in China is expected to reach 780,000 by the end of the year. Non-profits are trying to fight its spread with educational campaigns to shed light on the problem. The Chinese non-profit “Justice for All,” for example, launched a campaign called “SMILE.” They asked people to photograph themselves smiling and holding up hand-written messages of support for infected patients. Those behind the initiative hope that this will help fight discrimination against the sick. So far, more than 12,600 photos have been collected and sent to the Chinese Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Human Resources, and Social Security.
 
 
 
Photos from the "SMILE" campaign.
 
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“When I meet patients, at first, they’re convinced the treatment won’t work”

Thomas Cai is the head of the Chinese non-profit Aids Care China, which works in the Yunnan, Guangdong and Guanxi provinces.
 
AIDS appeared in China towards the end of the 1980s, like in much of the rest of the world. It first spread through infected needles shared by drug addicts. Then, in the early 2000s, it began spreading mainly through sexual transmission. That’s when the Chinese government started to pay attention to the problem. The first national HIV awareness campaign was launched in 2002. Since then, anti-retroviral treatment has been free for everyone.
 
Despite such efforts, few people infected with the virus seek out treatment. The taboo surrounding the disease is still very strong: people are ashamed to get tested or to ask for treatment. They are worried that they’ll be shunned by others. One of our goals as a non-profit organisation is to convince people that there is no reason to be scared, and that they can lead a relatively normal life thanks to the treatment.
 
When I meet people who have been infected, at first they’re convinced the treatment won’t work, and that they have very little time left to live. So a huge part of our job is to educate them. The results are rather satisfactory: out of the 20,000 patients we have helped get treatment, about 95 percent manage to return to a normal life, go back to work and raise their children.
 
“Since we’re not legally recognised, we work parallel to the authorities instead of with them”
 
Of course, this is not easy work: China is a huge country and we don’t reach everyone, because some people live in very remote, isolated areas. For example, it is often difficult to reach prisoners or ethnic minorities. So our goal is to reach more people directly, for example by talking to people as they leave their workplaces. That way they get to know us, trust us and in the end accept the idea of seeking treatment.
 
Another problem is that non-profit organisations remain outlawed in China. [According to Chinese law, foreign foundations are allowed to work in China, but not nonprofit organisations. However in practice, a number of non-profits, both foreign and Chinese, are tolerated by the authorities.] The police never stop us from carrying out our awareness campaigns, but we are not officially recognised or registered with the authorities. This makes our work a bit complicated – we work parallel to the authorities, instead of with them. Financially, we are entirely dependant on international organisations. Aids Care China works closely with Sidaction and Doctors Without Borders. With their help, we’ve been able to open a clinic.
 
I think that the state understands how vital our work is in controlling the spread of the virus, but from a political standpoint, there’s a long road ahead.”
 
 
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