- The Washington Times - Friday, December 4, 2009

She may not hear or see very well anymore, but when Gao Yaojie starts talking about what brings her to the United States, there is determination in her eyes.

Dr. Gao, who will turn 83 this month, was in Washington on the occasion of World AIDS Day to introduce a new edition of her book, “10,000 letters,” exposing the reality of HIV/AIDS in China.

The book’s title refers to the letters the tireless activist has received over the years from poor villagers in rural China who were infected by HIV in the 1990s after giving blood in infamous “blood stations” that mixed donated blood. “Because they are not educated, they don’t have a voice. They can only cry,” she said.

“It is a miracle that this book is published,” said Dr. Gao, who wore a red AIDS ribbon on her black jacket. The book was first released in mainland China in 2004 but government officials pressured the Beijing publisher to remove it from the shelves. The new edition was published in Hong Kong.

Dr. Gao, a former gynecologist, became a pioneer in exposing the AIDS crisis in China after her first encounter with an AIDS patient in 1996. Back then, she devoted her efforts to prevention, visiting the most affected villages in Henan province and earning the nickname, “China’s Mother Teresa.”

Dr. Gao fought to help the poor farmers who got the virus after selling their blood for money. In central Henan province alone, there were more than 200 blood stations. The blood would be collected and then pooled with other donors’ blood of the same type.

After separating the components needed for medical use, the remaining blood would be re-infused into the donors. This unsafe procedure contributed to the spread of HIV and other diseases.

In one village, up to 60 percent of the population was infected.

“The government engaged in a cover-up campaign and chased activists,” Dr. Gao recalled. “The government would use several ways to hide the truth: bribe the infected farmers, bribe the activists, engage in some sort of harassment or resort to imprisonment and re-education through labor.”

According to the U.N. agency that fights the disease (UNAIDS) and the Chinese Ministry of Health, between 560,000 and 920,000 people in China had the HIV virus in 2007, and 97,000 to 122,000 had AIDS. These numbers are thought to substantially underestimate the crisis.

Specialists say the government’s attitude toward the issue has evolved.

“We moved from a state of denial to admitting there is a problem. The SARS epidemic made a big change in that sense,” said Chung To, founder of the Chi Heng Foundation, a Hong Kong-based charity that helps Chinese children who lost their parents because of AIDS.

In 2003, the Chinese government publicly admitted the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) months after the first deaths in the southern province of Guangdong, where the disease is thought to have originated. By then, the disease had spread to dozens of countries.

The government’s attitude toward HIV/AIDS is still uneasy, Dr. Gao said.

“After 2003, [then] Vice Premier Wu Yi met with me. Then she visited villagers affected by the disease, but it had no effect,” Dr. Gao said. “The local governments still try to cover up the causes.”

Wang Baodong, spokesman at the Chinese Embassy in Washington, said the Chinese government places a high priority on the prevention and control of the AIDS pandemic.

He cited a visit by Premier Wen Jiabao to a Beijing hospital on Tuesday, where he met AIDS patients and medical volunteers.

Since the end of 2003, Mr. Wang said, the Chinese government has carried out a policy known as “four frees, one care,” which includes free blood tests, free education for orphans of AIDS patients, free consultation and antiretroviral therapy for pregnant women.

While the Chinese government says most infections come from drug use and sexual activity, Dr. Gao said 90 percent of AIDS infections in China were caused by the blood transfusions. She said such stations “still exist, but they have gone underground.”

Mr. Chung of the Hong Kong-based charity said the children of AIDS-infected parents are “triply affected.”

“They are discriminated against at school, they have to do their parents’ work and take care of them when they are sick, and bear the emotion of seeing them passing away,” he said.

The China Work Committee on Care for Children, a Chinese government agency, estimates that the number of AIDS orphans in China could reach 260,000 by 2010.

Dr. Gao recalled visiting one village where six people died of AIDS in one day.

Dr. Gao said she endures harassment and limitations on her personal freedom despite her age.

Her movements are monitored and she had to hide for two months before she could secretly travel to the U.S. with the help of the State Department and Bob Fu, president of the U.S.-based ChinaAid.

When Dr. Gao met Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in February in Beijing, she said she found out that plainclothes police officers had been searching for her, even though the central government had agreed to the meeting.

She met again with Mrs. Clinton on Monday.

“No plainclothes police this time!” she said, with a mischievous grin.

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