Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Headlines, Health, Human Rights

CHINA: Stigma Stays Despite Lifting of Ban on People with HIV

Kit Gillet

BEIJING, Apr 29 2010 (IPS) - China’s lifting of its longstanding ban on foreign visitors with HIV removes a restriction that many Chinese doctors and activists find discriminatory, but erasing the stigma attached with the virus remains one of the biggest challenges ahead in facing the disease.

The lifting of the ban was announced on Apr. 27, one month after the country refused entry to Australian author Robert Dessaix, who had included his HIV- positive status on a visa application to China.

A statement released by the Chinese State Council on Tuesday said that, after careful research, government officials had concluded that the ban had an extremely limited effect on preventing and controlling the pandemic within the country. Officials also said that the ban had proved detrimental to the hosting of international events, though it was temporarily lifted for the duration of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.

The ban on allowing foreigners with HIV into the country is part of a 1989 law regulating entry by foreign nationals, which was changed on Apr. 19 and took effect on Apr. 24. In recent years, it had come under increasing attack as being behind the times and belonging to an era when understanding of the HIV and AIDS was in its infancy and fear of it was rife.

“Such a ban was put into effect in a time when we knew little about AIDS,” Hao Yang, deputy director-general of the Chinese Ministry of Health’s Bureau of Disease Control, told a meeting of the Red Ribbon Foundation (RRF), an organisation that helps people with AIDS, at the time of Dessaix’s visa refusal.

“Now that we have realised it is unnecessary, it is time for us to lift it,” he added.


He Xiong, deputy director of the Beijing centre for disease prevention and control, told the ‘China Daily’ newspaper last week: “As HIV and AIDS cases have been seen in all provinces in China, a travel ban on foreigners will not help local public health.”

But “what we are lacking now is in-depth HIV and AIDS education in China,” said Wan Yanhai, founder and director of the AIZHI Institute of Health Education (a Chinese acronym for love, knowledge, and action), the first AIDS-focused non-government organisation in China.

“There is still a lot of prejudice in China toward HIV-positive people, and this is a very serious problem,” Wan said in an interview.

Indeed, despite the government’s lifting of the ban on allowing foreigners with HIV to come into the country, it seems a good proportion of Chinese citizens remain unsure about ending it.

A recent online survey hosted jointly by the web portal Sohu and ‘China Daily’ newspaper, in which more than 4,000 Chinese citizens voted, showed that 84 percent of those who answered opposed lifting the ban.

Of those that opposed the ban, 75 percent said they did so due to fear that infected foreigners would further spread the disease in China, which has an estimated 740,000 people living with HIV.

“The masses can and do make mistakes,” said Jing Jun, a professor of sociology at Tsinghua University and a policy advisor for China’s National Centre for HIV/AIDS. “Stigma and discrimination attached to HIV are still very much a problem in our society,” she added.

Since 2003, the Chinese government has implemented a series of laws to try to help China’s domestic HIV-positive population.

Under what is known as the ‘Four Free and One Care Policy,’ Chinese citizens can now get free counseling, along with antiretroviral drugs if they live in rural areas, are in financial difficulties or pregnant. Newborn babies of HIV- positive mothers will be tested for HIV without charge. Households with infected individuals can also get care and economic assistance from the government.

The country also launched its first anti-HIV and AIDS network for young people, specifically focused on migrant workers, in Beijing on Apr. 20. The organisation, established jointly by the Chinese Ministry of Health and the United Nations Children’s Fund, will recruit volunteers to help raise awareness about HIV and AIDS prevention and control among young people across China.

“I think our country has been promoting HIV- and AIDS-related knowledge better than many other countries (in recent years),” said Jing. “In the past there were people (in China) who suggested that all AIDS patients should be confined.”

In short, among the biggest obstacles China needs to overcome remains the stigma attached to the disease.

“Because most people are prejudiced toward HIV-positive people and their families, it is hard for people to lead a normal life once their identity has been exposed,” Jing said.

“Removing the (travel) ban will send out a positive message toward HIV- positive people in China,” said AIZHI’s Wan.

China had previously been one of 66 countries around the world that restrict access for people with HIV and AIDS, with the United States and South Korea lifting similar bans in January this year.

China’s announcement came days before the opening of the Shanghai Expo on May 1, which is expected to draw hundreds of thousands of foreign visitors to the country over the coming months and focus media attention on the city.

A ban on those afflicted by leprosy was also lifted.

 
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