“If everyone can live for others, others will live for you. I have no regret.” --Dr. Gao Yaojie Eight years ago, the short documentary “the Blood of Yingzhou District” introduced me and many people in mainland China and around the world to an extremely vulnerable group—the children orphaned by HIV/AIDS in China. The film presents the stories of several of these children. Some lost their parents. Others contracted the disease themselves. Gao Jun, at the age of 3, was isolated in the village—even his relatives were concerned about allowing their children to play with him.
The issues raised significant public attention in those days. However, in the past two years, it seems the initial outrage caused by the issue has faded. Exposure on media is rarely seen. The government has yet to develop a clear national action plan or policy for protecting and empowering the children impacted by the disease. Thus, I believe in the need for increased attention on children orphaned by HIV/AIDS.
These children’s parents died of HIV/AIDS by selling their blood plasma to blood banks, many of which were underground. In the early 1990s, a market for plasma emerged due to the poverty in rural areas causing many to exchange their blood for money. Blood banks mixed all sellers’ blood in one tank and extracted the plasma. Contaminated blood plasma was sold to hospitals where diseases like HIV were more widely spread.
The local government did not play a very significant role in preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS. The government-led awareness campaign has long denied the role of blood transfusions in spreading disease in China. According to Chinese officials, sexual intercourse and needle sharing among drug users cause most new infections. Official campaigns have persuaded the general public to believe that most people are infected from immoral behavior rather than blood transfusions.
In 2004, the number of children orphaned by HIV/AIDS was estimated to be more than 100,000. Later, the authorities publicized that the number of children orphaned by HIV/AIDS was 76,000 and the projected number in 2010 was estimated to be 260,000. According to Dr. Gao Yaojie - a long-term AIDS activist who is currently exiled in the US - the real number of those infected with HIV/AIDS is worth questioning. She believes that the official figures were largely underestimated because data at the local level may be censored as HIV/AIDS is still a taboo to the some local governments. In the documentary Central Plains, the villagers explained that local authorities would have them under surveillance if reporters wanted to interview about blood transmission issues.
The government implemented the “four frees and one care” national policy in 2003 which provides free counselling and testing; drugs to rural and uninsured patients and pregnant women; schooling for AIDS orphans; and economic assistance to people living with AIDS. Although officials have claimed the policy to be effective in decreasing fatality rate, it is far from adequate.
Numerous NGOs provide group homes for orphaned children who were not adopted or accepted by general orphanages. In 2013, the production team of “the Blood of Yingzhou District” revisited the children featured in the film. Gao Jun, the three year old boy who suffered from malnutrition, medicine shortages and isolation now lives at the Fu Ai Home with four other orphans. He has access to various educational and health resources, and has experienced an overall increase in his quality of life.
The Chi Heng Foundation, a Hong Kong registered foundation, is one of the biggest and most influential NGOs in providing assistance to children who are orphaned or semi-orphaned by HIV/AIDS. Last month, they initiated a “Go with Love” campaign with media and celebrities to increase the public attention on AIDS orphans. NGOs seem to be more effective and efficient in advocating for the rights of those orphaned by HIV/AIDS in China.
NGOs are not enough to tackle a problem that has developed over the course of several decades. Governments should increase their attention to the large population of children negatively impacted by infected blood transfusions. Additionally, Health, Civil Affairs, Education and many other departments should all involve to develop a systematic inspection and caring framework. The disease is damaging our next generation, it is urgent for government to prioritize assisting this extremely vulnerable population.