Growing up with AIDS

Updated: 2011-11-30 11:07


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ZHENGZHOU - At first glance, "Xiao Min" looks just like other girls her age. The junior high student is sociable, diligent and has shown considerable athletic talent at school.

But every day, the 14-year-old disappears for a few minutes to find a private place where she can take her HIV medication without anyone seeing her.

Min is part of a generation of children affected by a 1990s-era blood-selling scandal that resulted in many farmers becoming infected with AIDS. Both of Min's parents unknowingly contracted the virus during this time, with Min's mother passing it on to her at birth.

Min's childhood has been marked by death. She lost her mother at the age of 7, leaving her to tend to her father, who was diagnosed with cirrhosis after the virus weakened his immune system.

However, the hardest part for Min has been confronting her own identity as an HIV/AIDS carrier.

"I was told about my AIDS status when I was in third grade, but at that time I knew nothing of it and was not afraid. However, I have learned more about it from my doctor and schoolteachers," Min said.

"Now what I fear most is others' behavior. My good friends never talk about my AIDS status, but some boys in my class have been using it to insult me," Min said.

Min attends a boarding school in the seat of Shangcai county in Central China's Henan province, returning to a shabby village hut on the weekends to help her grandparents with farm work and play with her 4-year-old brother.

"To our great relief, Min is a good girl and tries her best to help us. But look at her family: her only parent is in the hospital, we old folks don't have many years left and her brother is so young. What can we do to save this family?"  Min's grandmother asked.


Dr Wu Zhongren, a resident of Shangcai county, still remembers the blood-selling frenzy that wreaked havoc in Shangcai in the 1990s.

"People were just mad back then - they drove farm vehicles to sell their blood as if rushing to a fair. Some traveled from one station to another to have their blood drawn twice in one day," said the 66-year-old doctor.

"One could earn 50 yuan ($7.8) by selling 400 ml of blood, which is a pretty good amount of money in this poverty-ridden county, even higher than my monthly income. Many farmers built a new house by selling their blood," Wu said.

Similar crazes swept through rural China in the 1980s and 1990s, a time when many rural Chinese were still unaware of HIV and AIDS.

"Nobody knew that you could get HIV through blood transfusions, including me. I didn't agree with the practice at that time because frequent transfusions are bad for the body," Wu said.

The doctor's intuition was right, but the retribution that came later was worse than he could've imagined. In the late 1990s, many participants in the blood-selling programs began to die from unknown diseases. Around the turn of the century, Shangcai received national attention for concentrated breakouts in its "AIDS villages."

Even worse, many HIV carriers, lacking knowledge of the disease, transmitted the virus to their children through childbirth or post-birth contact.

As of this year, Shangchai County has reported 8,038 AIDS cases. Of the 6,035 patients currently under medical care, 250 are children. FUTURE FOR YOUNG AIDS CARRIERS

Fortunately, the fatal epidemic is no longer the spectre it once was. By continuously taking medicine, HIV carriers can keep the virus at bay, preventing the virus from ruining their immune systems.

Local governments in Shangcai have dispensed anti-HIV medication to infected children as part of their free medical treatment. Their tuition fees have also been eliminated and monthly subsidies have been doled out to help impoverished families.

Min remains healthy as a result of taking the medicine. Her CD4 cell count, a main index for the health of the immune system, remains above 700, the same level as a healthy child.

"I must study hard and practice medicine when I grow up. Then I can bring a better life to my father, my brother and my grandparents," Min said.

However, as HIV-infected children grow up and begin to pursue educational and career success, they are likely to encounter problems such as discrimination, poor health and a lack of family support.

"Xiao Peng," a 16-year-old HIV carrier from the village of Houyang, dropped out of junior high school without much disapproval from his family.

Peng's parents both died in 2004 from AIDS-related complications. He is now in the custody of his grandmother and uncle.

"The boy doesn't like studying, so we just let him drop out," said Peng's uncle.

Peng is now helping his relatives run their small business, but has no idea about finding fixed employment.

"I can't go to factories. If they caught me secretly taking AIDS medication, they would certainly fire me," Peng said, adding that his infirmity prevents him from doing heavy work.

Peng said he envies his cousin, who recently got married and furnished his new house, but shrugged at the idea of getting married himself. In China's countryside, knots are often tied at a young age.

"I've never thought about that. For now, I just want to make money to furnish the bungalow my parents left me," Peng said.

Peng's parents built the bungalow using money they got from selling blood, but died before the house could be furnished. Blood sales earned them everything they needed to build a lovely home - everything except time.