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Battling HIV In China

in CHINA, 12/09/2011

Xiao Ming is a 25-year-old gay man from Shenyang, the capital of China’s Liaoning Province, who never worried about HIV or AIDS until he got sick last April. “I ran a fever and had diarrhea after having intercourse,” Xiao said, using a fake name to protect his identity.

Like many other homosexual men in China, very few people know of his sexual preference.

But Xiao Ming has had boyfriends, and hasn’t always used a condom during sex. “I used to think that I was healthy and didn’t need to undergo physical tests. But I felt so afraid this time,” he said.

Xiao Ming took a quick HIV test in the Health Advisory Service Center of Love Aid, an NGO devoted to fighting the spread of AIDS among homosexuals.

Fortunately, his test results came back negative, showing no sign of infection. Since then, Xiao Ming has been taking an HIV test every other month and brings his friends to get tested as well.

Love Aid, founded in Shenyang, has one full-time and two part-time test administrators and a 24-hour a day hotline.

“People come to receive VCT [HIV voluntary counseling and testing] almost every day,” said Ma Tiecheng, director of the Health Advisory Service Center of Love Aid.

Those diagnosed as HIV-positive are referred to professional HIV/AIDS treatment facilities or institutions, Ma added.

The organization also promotes reducing the chances of contracting a sexually transmitted disease, like HIV, by using condoms. Men who have sex with men (MSM) accounted for about one in every three new HIV cases reported in China last year, according to official statistics recently released by China’s Ministry of Health.

Nearly five percent of all MSM live with the virus, said Hao Yang, deputy director of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention under the Ministry of Health. Love Aid tests more than 200 MSMs every year in Shenyang, where the HIV prevalence rate among MSMs rose to more than ten percent in 2010, up from less than one percent in 2003 and five percent in 2005.

“AIDS spreads mainly through individuals’ behaviors, like sex and drugs. The MSM group remains hidden from the public eye for fear of social bias, and the government alone cannot control the spread of HIV among this group,” said Zhang Mingliang, a volunteer for the Black Square Community, an HIV/AIDS prevention NGO established in 2007 in Northeast China’s Heilongjiang Province.

The Black Square Community has ten volunteers: five doctors and five medical students. They started a group on QQ, China’s most popular free instant messaging platform, which has attracted more than 800 members.

“We’ve offered consultation services to more than 20,000 people and diagnosed dozens of HIV infections,” Zhang said.

Zhang finds that those living with HIV/AIDS are becoming younger and younger.

“Most people infected with HIV were 25 to 35 years old in the past, but there have been more infections among college students since 2009,” Zhang said.

The Five Golden Flowers Workshop, another HIV/AIDS prevention and awareness NGO, was established by several MSM university students in 2004 in Changchun, the provincial capital of northeastern China’s Jilin Province. The workshop has devoted itself to promoting HIV/AIDS awareness among college MSMs.

They successfully launched a small non-governmental campaign to enhance college-aged MSMs’ HIV/AIDS prevention awareness in several northeastern universities in 2007.

Despite these and other NGOs’ efforts in the fight against HIV/AIDS, homosexual rights NGOs continue to struggle into existence.

To date, no homosexual rights NGO has registered with China’s civil affairs authorities, due to their unique and unprecedented nature. Their ambiguous status poses difficulties in raising funds and holding meetings.

Additionally, low funds prevent them from hiring professional employees and training volunteers.

Guo Xiaofei, a professor at the China University of Political Science and Law, suggests the Chinese government mobilize more NGOs to join the fight against HIV/AIDS.

“To reduce AIDS infections, the government should allow more AIDS prevention NGOs to register and let them participate in more campaigns to check the spread of AIDS,” Guo said.

Still, Ma Tiecheng with Love Aid has another concern: in China, homosexuals feel the cultural and societal pressure of filial piety, which emphasizes having children. As the association between homosexuals and HIV/AIDS prevalence grows, he fears societal bias against homosexuals will increase, as well, creating a larger obstacle for HIV/AIDS prevention work.

Xiao Gu, also using a fake name, is a 35-year-old gay man. He married a lesbian two years ago. Their families see the marriage as a step toward having children and building a family, but, since their marriage, they have continued to live separately, often with their respective same-sex partners.

This case is not exceptional.

“If society could be more tolerant of gay people, the work of AIDS control could be easier,” Ma Tiecheng said.

His view is shared by many experts, including Guo Xiaofei.

“Measures should be taken to eliminate discrimination against gays and lesbians at the same time,” he said.
 

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