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China blasted over AIDS spread

China has only recently allowed safe-sex advertisements to appear on billboards.
China has only recently allowed safe-sex advertisements to appear on billboards.

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AIDS (Disease)

HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- The spread of AIDS in China is running largely unchecked with patients denied treatment and authorities not dealing with a blood collection scandal that led to millions of HIV infections, a leading human rights group says.

Discriminatory laws as well as restrictions on freedom of speech had attributed to a growing crisis that China says has affected one million people in the country with HIV/AIDS, the New York-based Human Rights Watch charged in a 94-page report released on Wednesday.

The report -- based on dozens of interviews with HIV/AIDS sufferers as well as police, drug users, and AIDS workers in Beijing, Hong Kong and Yunnan province -- said the government was tolerating the social discrimination of sufferers.

"Some flee from place to place with the constant threat of exposure as 'carriers' of the 'plague'," the report said.

Citing Chinese government documents, Human Rights Watch also said the number of people infected with the virus was far higher than the government admitted with a blood-selling scandal in the mid-1980s largely to blame.

Beijing continued to cover up "one of the world's greatest HIV/AIDS scandals," Human Rights Watch argued, adding that an impartial probe was needed.

During the mid-1980s, entire villages in several Chinese provinces contracted HIV -- the virus that causes AIDS -- because of unsanitary blood collections.

Human Rights Watch said the government documents showed infection rates among blood donors ranged from four to 40 percent across seven provinces. The combined total population of the regions is 420 million.

In Henan province alone, some activists argue more than 1 million sufferers contracted HIV from an unsanitary government-sponsored blood-for-money program.

The outbreak first came to light last decade, and the Chinese central government has acknowledged the problem in 2001 but has provided little detail on the extent of the outbreak.

China's effective anti-SARS campaign is proof it can tackle AIDS, report said
China's effective anti-SARS campaign is proof it can tackle AIDS, report said

In August 2002, China said an estimated 1 million Chinese were carrying the virus but has not revealed how many infections resulted from the blood-for-money program.

"It is time for China to confront the blood collection scandal," Brad Adams, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division, said.

"Beijing should authorize a full and impartial investigation into the involvement of local authorities in the blood scandal and hold those responsible accountable."

The Human Rights Watch report made sweeping recommendations for China in dealing with the spread of the virus.

Though Beijing has recently issued positive policy statements about HIV/AIDS that included education and prevention projects as well as the non-discrimination of patients, the report said more needed to be done.

Among the recommendations was the nationwide training of health workers, legislations to prevent discrimination against sufferers and an end to the arbitrary detention of drug users in forced treatment centers.

Many HIV sufferers have little or no access to health care and discrimination of HIV sufferers was widespread, the report said. Rather than combating it, the government tolerates such attitudes, it added.

This then further spreads the epidemic by driving those carrying HIV/AIDS underground instead of helping them, the report said.

Some local laws even prevented HIV-AIDS patients from using swimming pools or working in the food industry, the report found.

"Discrimination is forcing many people to live as outcasts, and the Chinese government tolerates it instead of combating it," Adams said.

"This is sure to make the AIDS crisis worse."

The Human Rights Watch report said that China's successful campaign to eradicate the SARS virus had shown Beijing has the capacity to combat AIDS.

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