- The Washington Times - Friday, November 23, 2001

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

BEIJING China's government has helped one AIDS-ravaged village whose plight has been highlighted by international media but is ignoring nearby settlements out of the limelight, farmers dying of the disease say.

"They told us our country can only have one Wenlou village. There is no second," said Mr. Cheng, a 30-year-old farmer in Chenglao, another village less than a mile from the famous Wenlou, giving only his surname.

Peasants in Wenlou, in central China's Henan province, began receiving basic medical care and other assistance this fall after local and international press focused on the appalling swath cut through its population by AIDS.

Help came as China's central government finally began to acknowledge it faced a grave AIDS crisis in rural areas, caused by poor peasants selling blood to stations that used grossly unsanitary methods.

But local doctors and farmers say little has been done to help villages that have not been under the media spotlight.

"There are many villages worse than Wenlou," said Gao Yaojie, a retired doctor who won a prestigious award in the United States for her tireless efforts to help the Henan AIDS sufferers.

In Wenlou, the sick receive free medical care, although it's basic. Children who have lost both parents to the illness can go to school free of charge.

In other villages, however, the central and provincial governments have not even sent out doctors to begin gauging the scale of the crisis.

Many families have spent all their savings on medicine and are surviving, barely, on the sympathy of relatives.

"In some villages, the number of people dead are more than ours," said a Wenlou AIDS patient.

"Each day, people from other villages come to our clinic, but officials turn them away. They said our country is too poor, we can't have another Wenlou."

Farmers in a village in Sui county, 60 miles from Wenlou, said county hospitals, ignorant and fearful of AIDS, turn them away.

"No one came from the central or provincial government," said one villager. "This year 18 people died. Last year, three to four people died."

With their money going to AIDS treatment, villagers are paring spending to the bone, pulling children from school to avoid the fees and disconnecting telephones to save the monthly 18 yuan bill, worth about $2.

Zhao Yan, a Sui county AIDS sufferer, said she canceled her telephone service six months ago and would have to take her two sons out of school next semester because she had spent the family savings buying medicine for her husband, who also had AIDS.

The AIDS epidemic in Henan was sparked by large numbers of poor peasants selling their blood in the mid-1980s to 1990s to government-sponsored and illegal collectors.

The collectors mixed the blood in large containers and removed the plasma to sell to hospitals.

The remainder then was reinjected into the donors to try to reassure them they would come to no physical harm and to encourage regular sales a practice that led to some of the highest infection rates in the world.

Beijing concedes to only 600,000 HIV-positive cases across the country, but independent doctors say Henan alone likely has at least 1 million.

Government neglect is so bad that many villagers believe central authorities simply cannot have heard about their plight.

"The local government is suppressing the news. The central government doesn't know. If they knew, they would help us because they're the government," Mrs. Zhao said.

Despite the attention given to Wenlou, even villagers there are not faring much better than their more anonymous neighbors.

In August, local officials demanded every family, even those with AIDS patients, pay the annual tax of about 95 yuan per head for each household.

Four sick villagers who did not pay were arrested and detained for 48 hours, said a woman whose family borrowed money to pay the levy.

Local officials seem more keen on clamping down on negative publicity than giving villagers even minimal help.

Government officials rarely visit the villages with AIDS sufferers, but the few times they have been there it is to warn peasants against speaking to reporters about the problem, or against traveling to Beijing to seek help from the central government, villagers said.

Some counties have posted police officers in the villages 24 hours a day to keep out journalists and track who leaves.


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