Among Chinese, Fear and Prejudice About Hepatitis B

By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 13, 2007

WUJIANG, China -- Liao, a 28-year-old engineer, worked at a large electronics company in this coastal province town, two hours west of Shanghai. He helped decide where to place large production machines on the factory floor, and how many workers were needed on which assembly lines. Last year, he won an award for good performance.

But it wasn't enough to save his job. In December, after a compulsory company physical revealed he was a carrier of the hepatitis B virus, Liao was told he was unfit for the job. He said a human resources manager told him: "You're a hepatitis B carrier. You're not fit for collective life, for working in a factory with colleagues."

Liao, who declined to give his full name for fear of being rejected by other potential employers, was astonished. "I thought it was impossible. . . . I didn't think I would lose my job," he said.

In China, however, discrimination against people who carry the hepatitis B virus is not only possible but widespread. Even though at least 10 percent of the Chinese population carries the virus, which can attack the liver and cause lifelong infection, cirrhosis or liver cancer, there is a failure among many to understand that it cannot spread through casual contact.

Experts say the barriers faced by people with the virus fit into a larger context of job discrimination in China, where labor laws are not enforced or are contradictory. Institutions such as universities and the Foreign Ministry are said to discriminate against applicants based on height -- they prefer taller candidates -- while private employers routinely push middle-age women to retire early in favor of younger, cheaper employees, for example.

A 13-year-old labor law prohibits discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, race, sex or religious beliefs, but the regulation is too vague to be of use, experts say. In a survey of more than 3,000 people in 10 cities, results of which were published last month by the Beijing Morning Post, 85 percent of respondents said they believed there was discrimination in the workplace.

In the case of hepatitis B, experts say, discrimination is on the increase, partly because the dangers of the virus have been exaggerated by medical testing companies touting services and advertisers pushing fake cures. Such ploys gain attention in China, where 120 million carry the hepatitis B virus.

The virus is transmitted in body fluids, primarily blood and semen, but occasionally saliva as well. About 90 percent of people infected at birth, and about 10 percent infected later, become carriers, able to infect others for years. Many Chinese were infected by needles that were reused during mass vaccination programs for tuberculosis, tetanus and encephalitis from the 1970s to the 1990s.

Although many carriers have no symptoms, at least one-quarter will ultimately suffer some complication from the infection.

"It's not a lack of knowledge; it's knowing the wrong things," Lu Jun, the moderator of an online forum for the rights of hepatitis B carriers, said of common misunderstandings related the virus. "Advertisers want people to know the wrong things about the disease, so they can drum up more business."

Discrimination also extends to academia. University students who carry the virus often say they are forced to live in segregated dormitories. Last fall, 19 new students who were carriers were expelled by state-run schools in Urumqi, the capital of western Xinjiang province. Several sued the city, which then banned the student-led group that publicized the case.

In 2005, China lifted a ban that prohibited hepatitis B carriers from becoming civil servants, but the government still bars them from the food industry and is considering barring them from working in beauty parlors, public bathrooms and hotels, experts said.

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