Group Honors Doctor Who Exposed China AIDS Scandal

Gao Yaojie was harassed by Chinese officials for revealing the cause of an HIV outbreak among blood plasma donors.
Gao Yaojie was harassed by Chinese officials for revealing the cause of an HIV outbreak among blood plasma donors. (By Greg Baker -- Associated Press)
By Nora Boustany
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, March 15, 2007

Last month, at the Chinese New Year, officials from China's central Henan province showed up at the door of Gao Yaojie, an 80-year-old retired obstetrician, blogger and AIDS activist. Previously, provincial officials had come to the house only to harass Gao, who was under house arrest. But this time, on Feb. 17, they came bearing gifts -- flowers, balloons and a huge vase.

The provincial officials' turnaround was a result of international pressure; Gao was told she would be permitted to travel to Washington to receive the Vital Voices Global Leadership Award, which was presented to her here last night.

Gao, a diminutive woman with feet tiny from having been bound when she was a child, has been credited with saving a million lives, if not more, according to public health specialists here. In the mid-1990s, she single-handedly led a crusade that exposed a catastrophic blood plasma donor business that had triggered an HIV/AIDS epidemic in Henan province.

Gao had never even seen an AIDS case until April 7, 1996, when a patient with stomach tumors and black spots all over her body showed up at Gao's clinic. The patient did not fall into any of the high-risk categories for AIDS, Gao recalled. "She was 42, well-liked, and a very good woman, could not have been a sex worker," Gao said in an interview. She tried to get tests done but was told at the local hospital that only foreigners contracted AIDS.

Other farmers in the impoverished rural area were also contracting the disease at an alarming rate.

Retracing her patients' steps and asking questions, Gao uncovered the common link; all of them had donated blood plasma at unsanitary collection centers, for the equivalent of about $5 per donation. Old needles were being used and serum was being re-injected into donors' veins directly from a common vat once the plasma and red blood cells had been separated. Donors who were usually risk-free had become catalysts in spreading the epidemic. And the low-budget donation centers were making a handsome profit for center managers. Some local officials were implicated in the scandal.

"An astute observer, she made that clinical call that something unusual was underway and began investigating," said Chris Beyrer, a leading American AIDS specialist and professor of epidemiology at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore. "This was the worst man-made disaster we had seen anywhere."

Gao posted her first finding on a colleague's blog in October 1996; the colleague disappeared for three months thereafter, and mysterious men began shadowing Gao. Farmers were rewarded $60 for informing on her exploratory travels. She was ridiculed and accused of being used by anti-communist forces.

Gao fought back against the harassment. "I differentiate between you and the citizens. I am responsible for them," Gao recalled telling the government officials who were following her. As she spoke, she pumped her palm with her fist. She recalled how she would stare them in the face and quote her role model, Confucius, saying: "Ordinary citizens in a state have a responsibility for its rise and fall. On corruption, he taught us our duty was to monitor and criticize the government."

In the interview, she derided the provincial officials as "liars and gamblers with mistresses." She wanted nothing to do with them, she said, but "I do want to take care of the disadvantaged and the poor."

Eventually, her efforts and relentlessness paid off. China's vice premier visited her to inform her that she was right all along. The blood supply at the Henan centers was cleaned up. But Henan's governor from the 1990s was now a member in the Politburo Standing Committee in Beijing.

Using her retirement pension and money she has collected from international awards, some interviews and speaking engagements, Gao travels around the country to distribute educational materials about AIDS, to identify new cases and to take in orphans whose parents died because of it. At one point, she had 164 orphans. "There are so many orphans now. A big number is born with the disease. They have no food or medication, no houses to live in. I feel so sorry for them, so utterly frustrated," she said, her hands spread fan-like on her chest.

Gao credits her conduct to her once-privileged background. One of 12 siblings, Gao was handed over for her upbringing to a childless uncle and aunt with links to the Ching Dynasty.

When the Japanese army invaded China in 1937, Gao was barely 9 and she had to flee her native Cao County in Shandong to the relative safety of the countryside in Henan with her family. Her medical training was interrupted by repeated wartime bombing raids, but she became a doctor in 1953.

In 1967, Red Guards stormed into the clinic where she delivered babies. When she refused to march with them in the Cultural Revolution, she was beaten and left for dead in the hospital morgue. She survived and hid in the morgue for eight months, surviving on a bun a day slipped to her at midnight by a hospital orderly. Most of her stomach had to be surgically removed.

Gao said she will keep visiting and helping families in need. She has written five books on AIDS and pushes the address of her blog, printed on an English visiting card.

"I don't want to even think about it," she said when asked whether authorities may resume their harassment upon her return to China. Quoting Confucius again, she said: "If someone lives in this world with shame, why bother living at all?"

© 2007 The Washington Post Company