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“The only thing necessary for these diseases to the triumph is for good people and governments to do nothing.”

Hepatitis B, and prejudice, ravage a nation

AIDS gets the world's attention, but about 120 million Chinese suffer from another virus -- and the discrimination that comes with it in all corners of society, GEOFFREY YORK finds

GEOFFREY YORK With a report from Yu Mei
Thursday, October 19, 2006


BEIJING -- When she was diagnosed with the hepatitis B virus as a young girl, Xu Nuo was treated with casual cruelty by everyone around her.

Her teacher ordered her Grade 3 classmates to stop playing with her or talking to her. She was moved to a separate desk at the back of the class. In the playground, children followed her, shouting "Infectious disease! Infectious disease!"

As an adult, her misery and loneliness deepened. She has lost five jobs over the past five years. Most employers oblige their workers to undergo a physical exam, and she knows she will be dismissed as soon as the virus is detected, so she quits the job before the day of the exam.

Ms. Xu is one of the estimated 120 million Chinese carriers of the hepatitis B virus. It is an astonishing number: Almost one in 10 Chinese are carriers of the virus and a million new cases are added every year, giving China about one-third of all the cases in the world. Up to 350,000 Chinese people die every year from the effects of the liver disease.

And even though the virus is impossible to transmit by casual contact and the government has repeatedly pledged to protect them, the carriers suffer from rampant discrimination. They are routinely fired from their jobs or forced out of universities or segregated in separate dormitories. Even kindergartens have sometimes barred them.

While the world community has put pressure on China to care for its AIDS population, which the United Nations has estimated at 650,000, little attention has been paid to the hepatitis B carriers, even though they are far more numerous and equally victimized by society.

Like the AIDS carriers, most of those with hepatitis B were infected as a result of negligence by China's medical system, by tainted needles during vaccination programs or through blood-donation programs. But China has cut them loose with little help.

The problem was given sensational publicity in 2003 when a young university graduate, Zhou Yichao, stabbed and killed a local official who had rejected his application for a civil-service job because he had tested positive for hepatitis B. The 22-year-old man had scored among the top applicants on the civil-service exam, yet he was barred from the job because of the virus.

Mr. Zhou was convicted and executed for the murder, but his case galvanized the media's attention and forced Chinese officials to promise protection for the rights of virus carriers.

Many provinces passed laws to prohibit discrimination against virus carriers, and national standards were introduced to protect their rights. Yet today, those laws are routinely ignored and the discrimination continues.

Just this month, 19 students at a junior school in the city of Urumqi in western China were forced to leave the school because they tested positive for the virus. The children went back to their home villages and were unable to continue their education.

Foreign employers in China, including Canadian companies, are indirectly complicit in the discrimination because they often hire workers through Chinese personnel agencies that routinely reject anyone with the hepatitis virus.

Hepatitis B, like the AIDS virus, is primarily spread through contaminated blood, tainted needles, unprotected sex with carriers or transmission from infected mothers to newborn infants. It cannot be contracted from casual contact in a school or workplace, and most carriers have no symptoms.

But surveys in China have found widespread ignorance about the disease. Many people confuse it with hepatitis A, which is more easily transmittable. Even doctors are often ignorant about the disease.

The prejudices have grown much worse in the past 10 years because of heavy advertising by drug companies seeking to exploit the disease. Chinese television channels are filled with commercials for virtually useless drugs that claim to treat hepatitis B, and the alarmist publicity has convinced many people that the disease is a frightening threat to anyone in contact with a virus carrier.

"Many of us are forced to cheat in our medical examinations in order to get a job," Xu Nuo said in an interview. "Nobody likes to cheat. But we have no way to earn a living if we are honest. Even foreign companies, who respect the privacy of their workers in their home countries, change their policies when they come to China."

One 22-year-old carrier, Shu Wenming, was barred from a government job in the province of Anhui last year, even though he had won a top score on a civil-service exam. He filed a lawsuit in a local court, but his case was rejected. His appeal, too, was denied. Dozens of similar lawsuits have been filed across China, but 70 per cent are rejected.

"It's very unfair," Mr. Shu said. "Hepatitis B is not contagious like SARS, but we are segregated in universities, with a kind of man-made mark of terror placed on us. It's very inhumane and it contradicts all the government's talk about building a harmonious society."

When China introduced a new labour law this year, it failed to prohibit discrimination against virus carriers in the crucial period before an employment contract is signed. And it gave employers the right to conduct medical tests on their workers.

"It switches on a green light to prejudice against us," said Lu Jun, a 34-year-old carrier who works for an Internet forum for people with the virus.

"Over the past 10 years, discrimination against us has become more and more severe, like an accelerating train. In another 10 years, we might have no foothold at all in society."

Social prejudices in China are equally painful. Ms. Xu has no boyfriend and little hope of finding one. She once dated a man, but he left her as soon as he found out about the virus. "I don't even dare to think about love, because it's hopeless," she said. "Our society is not tolerant enough."

Mr. Lu's Web forum, which has more than 200,000 members, is one of the few sources of support for the virus carriers. Calling themselves "comrades in arms," the members organize hiking trips, swimming trips, basketball games and other social outings.

"We feel we are at home there," Ms. Xu said. "I feel more peaceful now. Our choices are few and our burdens are heavy, but I still have hope that society will treat us better in the future."

With a report from Yu Mei