- Associated Press - Thursday, November 29, 2012

BEIJING (AP) - Wang Pinghe wants the tumor in his liver removed before it becomes life-threatening. But the 28-year-old Chinese villager knows it will be hard to find a hospital that will do the operation _ because he has AIDS.

In China, hospitals routinely reject people with HIV for surgery out of fear of exposure to the virus or harm to their reputations. After years of denying AIDS was a problem in China, the country has significantly improved care for patients, but the lingering stigma sets back those advances.

“In my hometown, not a single hospital is willing to operate on people infected with HIV,” said Wang, who traveled to Beijing from Runan county in the central province of Henan to try to draw the attention of central authorities to the issue by speaking to the foreign media.

“This is not discrimination by one single person but by an entire country,” he told The Associated Press.

The stigma against people with HIV runs especially deep in China, from being unofficially barred from government jobs to being expelled from school.

Now, as more people rail against the myriad inequalities that plague Chinese society, people with HIV are becoming increasingly willing to assert their right to fair treatment.

One man recently claimed the spotlight by altering his medical records to hide his HIV-positive condition so he could get surgery for lung cancer. The man, who went by the pseudonym Xiaofeng, told state media he had been turned away by two hospitals.

His story sparked a firestorm of criticism directed at both the hospitals for rejecting him and the patient for exposing medical staff to risks they were not aware of.

Xiaofeng was smart. When he felt that his life was in danger, he found a way to save himself,” said Li Hu, a Tianjin-based activist who helped Xiaofeng and later publicized the case online. “But this way isn’t good for anyone, be it the patient or medical workers. Now the question is: Can we find a way that is favorable for everyone?”

The incoming premier, Li Keqiang, was prompted to issue a statement saying that health facilities must not discriminate against people with HIV. During a meeting Monday with a dozen activist groups, he said such discrimination would be severely punished, according to Li Hu.

The disease is a sensitive issue for Li Keqiang, who was governor of Henan province in 1998 when tens of thousands of people contracted HIV from state-sponsored blood-buying rings with unhygienic practices. Activists have urged Li to acknowledge the government’s responsibility for the disaster and provide compensation, with little success.

China has made significant strides in tackling the epidemic, with the AIDS mortality rate falling 64 percent from 2002 to last year. The government last year increased HIV treatment by 50 percent _ reaching three-quarters of the adults and children who require it, according UNAIDS.

An estimated 780,000 people have HIV in China. There has been an increasing trend of cases transmitted through sex rather than intravenously, with sex workers and gay men considered most at risk, said Guy Taylor, a communications officer for UNAIDS.

About 70,000 new cases were reported in the first 10 months of this year, largely through sexual transmission, as compared with about 93,000 for all of last year, the Health Ministry announced this week at a news conference ahead of World AIDS Day on Saturday.

With improved access to lifesaving drugs, people with HIV in China are living longer, which means more are seeking treatment for other ailments.

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