and prejudice, ravage a nation
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
YORK With a report from Yu Mei
Thursday, October 19, 2006
-- When she was diagnosed with the hepatitis B virus as a young
girl, Xu Nuo was treated with casual cruelty by everyone around
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!"
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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."
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."
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
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."
report from Yu Mei