In March, Australian writer Robert Dessaix was scheduled to appear at the Shanghai International Literary Festival, but he was forced to pull out at the last moment when he was refused an entry visa. The reason behind his rejection – Dessaix is HIV-positive, and therefore fell foul of a travel ban denying HIV-sufferers access to the country.
“It’s medieval. I feel snubbed and insulted, of course, and also humiliated,” Dessaix told the Sydney Morning Herald. “There had been interventions at the highest level on my behalf, but they were refused, so I see it as a snub to Australia, not just to me.”
Dessaix is probably one of the last people to be hit by the restriction because last week the government lifted the 20 year-old travel ban, just ahead of the opening of the Shanghai Expo. The old rule was the product of limited knowledge of HIV/AIDS and it has had only a minimal effect on preventing the spread of the disease, according to a statement released by the State Council. It also caused a degree of inconvenience when the country held international events.
In January, the US and South Korea took similar steps by lifting bans against HIV-positive tourists.
The policy change is part of a shift in attitudes towards the country’s HIV-positive citizens: “Previously, China viewed HIV/AIDS as an imported disease related to a corrupted lifestyle. But now the government handles it with a public health perspective,” Zhang Beichuan, a medical professor at Qingdao University, told the China Daily.
Sexually-transmitted diseases became more prevalent in China once the societal controls that characterised the Mao era began to erode. Cases began to appear again in larger numbers, much to the confusion of the medical community.
Interviewed in 1983, George Hatem, a US doctor who had practiced in China for decades, said that “our doctors under the age of 50… have never seen venereal diseases.” When they asked doctors overseas to send across relevant teaching materials, they found all the books labelled “STD”. They didn’t even know what it meant, since they were still used to the out-of-date term, “VD”.
Still, public awareness of HIV/AIDS is often low, and it is not uncommon for people to think that it can be spread via casual contact such as shaking hands or eating together. This means that those with HIV tend to be discriminated against: they might be rejected by their friends or family, or forced out of their jobs.
The government is taking measures to educate. For this year’s World AIDS day, for example, 30,000 posters were put up in the largest cities, calling for an end to discrimination. They featured basketball star, Yao Ming, spreading a message of tolerance: “Like all of us, my friends who are living with HIV should have the opportunity to live full and dignified lives.”
There were estimated to be around 700,000 HIV-positive cases in China in 2008, according to UNAIDS. This is equal to a prevalence rate in adults aged between 15 and 49 of 0.1% (compared to 0.2% in the UK and a staggering 18.1% in South Africa).
Transmission through heterosexual sex accounts for around 45% of infections, while intravenous drug users (especially in areas such as Sichuan and Yunnan) accounting for another 42%. Sex between gay men accounts for most of the remainder.
Although the rate of infection in China seems lower than in other countries, there are concerns that the disease could spread rapidly unless people are made more aware of the risks.
This is especially true of the gay community, which has seen a sharp increase in HIV cases in recent years. According to some estimates, the number of HIV-positive gay men in Chengdu could reach 35% this year. This could have a wider impact on society because many gay men in China keep their sexuality secret and continue to lead heterosexual sex lives too.
The hope is that a more informed and open approach towards HIV/AIDS will help to slow its spread.
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