World AIDS Day: China’s strange prejudice against AIDS patients

December 1, 2012

One of the purposes of World AIDS Day is to focus media attention on the global HIV/AIDS epidemic. But even though each country's HIV situation is unique, the point of most news stories about the day is to highlight the struggles of HIV-positive individuals -- not the perfectly healthy.


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In China, the daily Dongguan Times ran a full-page spread Friday about a local HIV clinic with the following headline:

“Every day face-to-face with AIDS patients, see how fearless they are”

However, the "they" seemed to refer to the nurses, who brave infection to work at the hospital, rather than their patients, who are living with an incurable virus. Chinese media watcher Danwei writes:

The rest of the article then proceeds to describe to what lengths the nurses go to protect themselves from the AIDS patients. With nerve-wracking tales of nurses cleaning up furiously and disinfecting every room twice, the article focuses entirely on the nurses and their tough day job dealing with these people that should seemingly be avoided like the plague.

Many of the country's other media reports were less fear-mongering, but the Dongguan Times story is apparently far from the only instance of discrimination against HIV-positive individuals in China.

In the Atlantic, Rebecca Chao details the plight of one HIV-positive Chinese man who, after being turned away from several hospitals because of his health status, finally altered his medical records so he could obtain a life-saving tumor operation.

The story was circulated widely on Weibo (China's Twitter), and while some users were sympathetic, "a surprisingly large number were angry about the young man's concealment and concerned that his actions put others in danger," Chao writes.

"The concealment is quite malicious. Can he endanger public safety just because his personal rights were trampled on? It's like those HIV-carriers who use needles with their blood to stab passers-by to infect them on purpose," one commentator wrote.

China's government has actually attempted to quell rumors that AIDS can be transferred through everyday contact and has publicly vowed to fight discrimination. Recently selected leader Xi Jinping visited a group of people living with HIV in Beijing on Friday and urged society to "to light their life with love."

Regardless, many Chinese people continue to -- at times irrationally -- fear the disease. 

Chinese citizens can be fired from their jobs or evicted from their homes on the basis of their HIV status. And some provinces ban HIV-positive people from working in food service or using swimming pools.

Public interest lawyers in the country say that legal claims brought by HIV-positive individuals who have been barred from employment are routinely lost or thrown out.

Of course, some 45 other countries and territories impose restrictions on people who have HIV and AIDS, and many nations have HIV discrimination issues far more severe than China's.

But the country offers an interesting example of how dramatically public opinion can lag behind official policy when it comes to HIV stigma.

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Olga Khazan | December 1, 2012