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AIDS-prevention groups help China's gays get tested

in CHINA, 01/12/2011

It was a work incident that prompted Nan Feng, a former travel agency manager in the sprawling city of Chongqing, to seriously focus on AIDS prevention.

Nan launched a website for gays in 1998. Three years later a local newspaper interviewed him on his AIDS-prevention work.

After the interview was published, Nan's colleagues surreptitiously put the full-page newspaper report about him unfolded on his desk.

"The people around me had the common prejudice that all gays have AIDS," he said.

Nan quit his job with the agency because of the incident and set up a volunteer group to disseminate information on AIDS prevention among high-risk gay groups.

The group's first move was to distribute condoms at gay bars and promote Nan's website on AIDS prevention.

In 2005, the group became eligible for money from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

The fund now supports Nan's group on an annual basis, enabling the group to administer HIV tests and provide telephone counselling for gays.8 Nan's group is part of an increasingly influential non-governmental force at the forefront of China's AIDS prevention battle.

China's first AIDS-prevention volunteer group for gay communities was set up in 1997 in Beijing by a group of foreign students. And now, the number of such groups has increased to more than 200, according to Zhang Beichuan, a renowned Chinese AIDS expert.

In China, stigma and discrimination associated with the AIDS epidemic mean that people are afraid to get tested.

A person who wants to take an HIV test at an official disease control body must give their ID number.

Compared with the official testing centers, groups such as Nan's

not only carry out HIV tests but also offer counselling services for gays, said Yuan Mu, who runs the first such organization in the northern province of Shanxi.

People feel more comfortable being tested by volunteer organizations where their private information will not be recorded and those that administer the test are mostly their friends, Yuan said.

Yuan's work group Landian, established in the provincial capital of Taiyuan in 2006, has provided free and private HIV tests for more than 450 gay males and their family members since September 2010.

Volunteers at Landian help HIV-positive people to visit disease control centers for tests, and if necessary, to hospitals for professional medical treatment.

Volunteer groups serve as a "bridge" between the health authorities and gays, said Xue Zidong, an AIDS prevention official from Shanxi's Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

A growing number of volunteer organizations have joined Landian to ensure more risky people have access to similar services, according to Yuan.

With the help of Landian, volunteer groups were set up in another five cities in the province of Shanxi last year. Landian is also promoting that the groups carry out HIV tests.

The number of volunteers is also growing as the public has become more tolerant to the gay community, according to Yuan.

But the biggest concern for Landian is funding, according to Yuan.

Landian now operates mainly on funds from Britain- and U.S.-based AIDS foundations, but it is still financially squeezed. Currently, the income of permanent workers in Nan's group is covered by Nan himself, though the rent and test facilities are sponsored by a fund.

According to a UNAIDS report released in August, the AIDS response in Asia and the Pacific is under funded and many countries in the region depend heavily on foreign funding. The report called for increased investment of domestic resources.

AIDS prevention expert Zhang Beichuan has suggested the government beef up financial support for organizations like Landian by purchasing their services and helping them with applications for international AIDS funds.

However, Zhang believed, it was social acceptance that provides the most cost-effective way for the homosexuals to engage with the public and thus help the volunteer groups to press ahead with their work.

 

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