In the blood

China’s hepatitis B sufferers face wide-ranging discrimination

In the blood

Chongqing vaccine failed

When describing her fight against prejudice, Xiao Jing uses a gardening metaphor. Her struggle is “to help people rid themselves of the weeds of discrimination that have grown in their hearts,” Xiao told the China Daily.

Last year, Xiao quit her job to help increase public awareness of hepatitis B (HBV). She started travelling to different cities, inviting passersby to dine with her while brandishing a placard that declared her own status as an HBV sufferer.

“It may seem a little crazy, but hopefully, by doing this, I will help more people to understand that they will not get infected by simply having dinner with HBV carriers,” she said.

HBV is a major problem in China, with 93 million people infected by the virus, according to Ministry of Health figures (other estimates are that the number is greater, probably as high as 130 million).

It’s a very emotive condition – with ignorance in China about HVB regrettably widespread. While most adults clear the infection spontaneously, some people do develop chronic conditions which can lead to cirrhosis and liver cancer.

The prevalence of the disease, along with a dose of irrational investor enthusiasm, was behind the recent run-up in Chongqing Brewery shares (see last week’s Talking Point), when the stock rocketed on hopes that one of its subsidiaries was about to create a cheap new vaccine for HBV.

The share price then imploded when it was announced that the new drug had failed to prove itself in clinical trials.

HBV is spread via contaminated blood or by sexual contact, with the most common transmission routes from mother-to-child and child-to-child. But there are widespread misconceptions in China that casual contact – like shaking hands with an HBV carrier – can lead to infection. Hence sufferers of the disease can be subject to discrimination in all walks of life, losing out on educational and employment prospects, or struggling with relationships and family life.

Social prejudice has been worsened by the search for profit by sections of the healthcare industry. “Some Chinese pharmaceutical companies and hospitals have exploited the prevalence of hepatitis B to peddle alleged cures and remedies,” warned a recent report in medical journal, The Lancet. “Their advertisements exaggerate the contagious nature of the disease… As a result, misleading information has become widespread.”

HBV carriers are particularly susceptible to employment discrimination, with many companies insisting that job applicants are tested for the virus.

In 2010, the government banned HBV testing for both employment and school enrolment, but research conducted a year later by the non-governmental organisation Yirenping found that 61% of the 180 surveyed state-owned companies were still including HBV tests in their pre-employment physical check ups.

Weak enforcement of the new laws means that HBV carriers usually have to fight their own corner. A current example of this is in Xi’an where there is a long-running legal struggle between an HBV carrier and two local hospitals, reports the People’s Daily. The plaintiff applied to join the civil service in 2010. He scored highly in both written and oral examinations, but was turned down due to his HBV infection. He then sued the hospitals for revealing his condition, claiming breach of his right to privacy.

The verdict is still to come in the 18-month lawsuit, but the plaintiff is still confident that action like his own will see more people advocate rights for HBV carriers.

“Discrimination is like a wall. I am only an individual, but the system has its limits. More people will join the fight, and we will fight it together.”

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