China's Blood Donor AIDS Victims Turn to Suicide
China's Blood Donor AIDS Victims Turn to Suicide
Mon Mar 15,2004, 8:14 AM ET
By Juliana Liu
SHUANG MIAO, China (Reuters) - Popping two pills a day to stave off
AIDS symptoms helps Chinese wheat farmer Tan Zhiyun delay the
inevitable -- suicide.
Tan was diagnosed HIV (news - web sites) positive in 2000 along with
hundreds of neighbors in the poverty-stricken village of Shuang Miao
in the central province of Henan. Some have already killed themselves
rather than wait for death.
"Given a choice between hanging myself or eating pesticides, I'd
prefer to hang myself," said the 51-year-old, swaddled in four layers
of clothing despite the warm spring weather.
"Suicide is my only way. It might be a little sooner or a little
later, but I'll have to do it some day," he said, resting on his side
next to wife Wang Xianlin, also HIV positive.
The two are among an estimated 900 HIV sufferers in a village of only
3,800 people, about one third of whom had sold blood regularly to buy
goods such as color TVs, fertilizer and schooling for their children.
Experts say up to three million people in Henan alone sold their
blood to unsanitary clinics, many of them state-sponsored, throughout
the 1990s in what they call the worst medically caused HIV epidemic
in the world.
But after years of living in the shadows, gagged by village and
provincial officials fearful of public scrutiny, China's AIDS victims
are demanding recognition and free treatment to make their remaining
days more comfortable.
China's leaders, keen to maintain social stability and brisk economic
growth, said public health would be a key issue during the annual
session of the National People's Congress, or parliament, which
opened March 5.
Premier Wen Jiabao, burnishing his "Man of the People" image, said
the public health system must be strengthened to deal with
"We need to maintain a high degree of vigilance and take firm and
effective measures to control SARS (news - web sites), AIDS,
schistomiasis," he told lawmakers.
International health agencies say AIDS could infect 10 million
Chinese by 2010 if unchecked, dwarfing the higher-profile SARS and
avian flu outbreaks.
Government officials had promised to provide poor HIV sufferers with
free effective drugs, free blood tests and free treatment. But
peasants living in hundreds of "AIDS villages" in Henan say real
benefits have yet to trickle down to them.
With no paved roads or running water, Shuangmiao is a typical Henan
village untouched by China's economic juggernaut. Villagers saw the
chance to sell blood as their one shot at a better life.
Clinics paid farmers to extract their blood plasma, then pumped the
unused components back into the donor from a pool tainted with blood
from other people. Blood was returned so that donors could give
More than 1,200 people in Shuangmiao regularly sold their blood for
about $5 per visit, said Zhu Jingzhong, an HIV positive farmer who
emerged as an informal leader after AIDS hit the village in 2000.
"It was like an atomic bomb went off," he said, puffing on a
cigarette and gazing at a dozen children playing in his yard, orphans
he had taken in after their parents died of AIDS.
"Villagers started dying at the same time. Some committed suicide
when they found out. People stopped buying our vegetables and wheat.
Youngsters in the village had a hard time finding marriage partners,"
BLACK MARKET DRUGS
Farmer Tan said he was on the verge of committing suicide three
months ago when his family bought the retroviral Triomune, made by
Indian generic drugs firm Cipla, for about $60 a bottle on the black
But family members said they had spent all their savings and even
gone into debt to buy the exorbitantly priced drug, which would run
out in about five days, prompting Tan to consider suicide again.
Villagers said free boxes of generic retroviral drugs made by
Shanghai Desano Biopharmaceutical Co Ltd were handed out with great
fanfare by officials last June. But about two-thirds of patients
stopped taking medication due to severe side effects, they said.
Activists were outraged, saying Desano's drugs were never tested on
humans before being distributed and highlighted the government's
incompetence in tackling AIDS in a region where condoms are rare.
"We are just beginning to see that a vast majority of people find the
side effects too painful to continue," said Wan Yanhai, director of
the Beijing Aizhixing Institute of Health Education, who spent months
in jail for daring to speak out about the virus.
A spokeswoman for Desano said human trials were not needed before the
drug's January 2003 launch because it was a generic copy. Regulators
asked the firm to start clinical tests this year, she said, declining
to specify why.
Qi Xiaoqiu, a director general at the Health Ministry's department of
disease control, told Reuters the ministry was aware of problems with
the free drug and was seeking a solution.
"We do plan to procure foreign-made retrovirals, but that will take
some time," he said on the sidelines of the Global AIDS Program
launch in Beijing.
But time may be running out for villagers like Tan and 37-year-old
Zhu Longwei, once a sturdy farmer who now passes his days lying under
a thick pile of blankets.
"I'm deteriorating quickly," he said in a barely audible voice as an
intravenous drip delivered a mix of self-bought potions into his