Road to recovery

By The Beijing News - Global Times Source:Global Times Published: 2016-1-12 19:28:01

‘AIDS village’ looks to the future after hundreds have died

No one expected that the large-scale blood donation in Wenlou village, Henan Province more than 20 years ago could have led to a huge HIV epidemic that took hundreds of people's lives. To date, more than 300 people in Wenlou are living with HIV and its symptoms. While the tragedy is irrevocable, now the "AIDS village" is looking to the future. With assistance from the government, it is striving to walk out of the shadow and create a better life for future generations.

Villagers in Wenlou village, Henan Province, are uncomfortable with outsiders. Photo: IC

On the day the first snows came to Wenlou village, Central China's Henan Province, 37-year-old Liu Geling rode his tricycle to nearby villages to sell fruits; 72-year-old Lin Xiumei cleared the snow from her makeshift kitchen; 60-year-old Guo Xiu explored her vegetable patch to check on her produce; while 38-year-old Liu Hengguo got up to boil water and wash his sick wife's face.

Simply everyday life in a normal village.

But in this village, one cannot avoid looking at the graves that crowd one field, just as people like Liu, Lin and Guo can never seem to escape their identity as HIV-positive people. Wenlou, in Shangcai county became one of the areas in the country most affected by HIV around 20 years ago after hundreds of villagers contracted the virus when selling their blood.

Blood for bricks

Liu Geling's family survived the disaster but it has left scars.

In the early 1990s, when everyone wanted to "get rich quickly" and when donating blood to save lives was advertised as a glorious deed, many people in the rural, remote and impoverished central plains chose to sell their blood for money, making that region an ideal place to collect cheap blood.

The blood collectors worked in blood stations built by county or township health departments. At that time, selling blood was so popular that a slogan circulated in Henan saying "Stretching your arm and clenching your hand means 50 yuan a time." In the early 1990s, 50 yuan could buy around 50 kilograms of rice. But though they made money, unsanitary blood collecting posed risks of disease infection. 

According to older Wenlou residents, they traditionally depended on planting vegetables, but they could barely survive doing that. What they got from 10 years of growing vegetables could not even cover the costs of building three brick rooms.

According to Guo, who was among the first to contract HIV in the village, people in Wenlou started to sell their blood in the 1980s. And by 1995, almost all families had at least one member selling blood.

"My wife and I built three brick rooms by selling our blood, but the second year after the house was finished, my wife was diagnosed as having HIV and now she is an AIDS patient," Liu Hengguo told The Beijing News.

"Many people sold blood to build houses. If you want to find the HIV-positive people in the village, just go find the brick houses," a villager said.

Liu Geling, a teenager at that time, offered to sell his blood too, but his grandfather forbid him from doing so. But his elder sister Liu Ling sold her blood to help the family build. She was diagnosed as HIV-positive in 2001 and died the following year, leaving her two daughters behind.

According to the statistics from the Ministry of Health, of the 3,170 villagers in Wenlou, about 1,310 donated blood before 1995. By November 1999, 43.48 percent of the donors were HIV-positive. As of the end of 2015, more than 200 people have died due to the disease in Wenlou.

A long way back

Liu Geling didn't sell his blood, but he was still diagnosed as HIV-positive in 2003 while he was working in Guangzhou, South China's Guangdong Province. He guesses that he may have been infected when he got an injection in Wenlou. But unlike his sister, he was saved.

In June 1999, Gui Xi'en, a doctor from Zhongnan Hospital under Wuhan University went to Wenlou and made the situation there known to the public. Later, after media reports, the village was known by the outside world as the "AIDS village."

In 2003, then Chinese vice premier Wu Yi visited Wenlou. In the same year, the village was listed as one of the 51 areas that required urgent HIV prevention and control. From then on, HIV-positive people in Wenlou could receive anti-retroviral medicine and treatment for free.

Then former premier Wen Jiabao visited the village twice respectively in 2005 and 2007. This attention played an essential role in the response to the epidemic. According to statistics, no new cases have been found since August 2004, and among the more than 300 HIV-positive residents of Wenlou, mortality has reached a normal level.

After Wu Yi's visit, the Henan provincial government sent a special team to Wenlou to build medical facilities. Now the village boasts a clinic that can meet the basic treatment needs of locals.

The team also tried to develop the local economy. The government once helped villagers raise pigs by providing subsidies and loans, but this had little effect. As a villager revealed, the swine were infected by hog cholera and many locals lost their money, so dared not try again.

In 2007, the provincial government invested 2 billion yuan($304 million)  to build a fungus-growing facility, the profits from which would go to HIV-positive locals. Now the enterprise is owned by the village.

According to village chief Liu Genzhu, as an "AIDS village," it is hard for Wenlou to attract investment. Once an electronics company showed interest in building a factory in the village, but after learning more about Wenlou, they withdrew.

Apart from the government, they have to depend on themselves, many villagers realized.

Liu Geling now depends on selling fruits in nearby villages. His father died five years ago of a cerebral hemorrhage. He now has an 87-year-old grandfather, a 63-year-old mother and two daughters to feed. It is hard for him to do heavy work as he suffers from the fatigue and muscle aches that are common among HIV-positive people. But selling fruits is not easy work. "I sometimes travel to more than 10 villages a day, and don't get home until 9 pm," he said.

Liu Geling takes anti-retroviral medicine twice a day, and he never smokes or drinks alcohol, or even cold water. "With this virus in your body, a cold could kill you," he said.

Among the survivors in Wenlou, more than 100 share Liu Geling's fate: Because of the disease, they cannot do physically-demanding jobs, but they are the backbone of their families.

Keeping alive

A member of staff at a public hospital in Shangcai told The Beijing News that if HIV-positive people take anti-retroviral medicines, they can live for decades without developing AIDS.

It has been over 10 years since Guo Xiu, Liu Geling, and Lin Xiumei were diagnosed as HIV-positive, but they all look healthy. Lin and Guo seldom suffer from complications except occasional colds. "If you keep taking medicine and keep positive mindset, you will live longer," Lin said.

Since 2003, the AIDS Prevention Office in Shangcai has provided each patient with a treatment card. The office puts 300 yuan on each patient's card every month, so patients can receive free treatment in two major hospitals in the county. The two hospitals provide not only anti-retroviral medicine, but also medicines to fight opportunistic infections and other treatments.

"The free treatment saves our lives, but we need to be very careful to maintain it," Liu Hengguo said. His wife has been HIV-positive for 15 years, but she was able to manage her disease for years due to the free medicine, but in 2010 she became very weak.

According to staff with the AIDS Prevention Office, the two hospitals can only treat general diseases, so patients need to go to a hospital in Zhengzhou, the provincial capital, if they are suffering from a serious illness. But at the hospital in Zhengzhou, only two thirds of costs are reimbursed.

"Without money, we cannot go to Zhengzhou, and had to rely on the two hospitals," Liu said.

A better life for the young

In today's Wenlou, HIV is no longer taboo. Cheng Yufang says this is a result of habit. "Many families have AIDS patients. We get used to it."

Today, unless you knew the history of the village, you wouldn't be able to tell what the people have gone through. Except for the medical clinic and the graves, the epidemic is invisible. A poster about AIDS prevention near the entrance of the village was taken down two years ago, and was never put up again.

More than 10 years ago, when the village became famous, there was no market for the vegetables the villagers grew. But today, no one cares if the vegetables are from Wenlou, as a villager said.

Thanks to the government intervention, Wenlou residents born in the 1990s are seldom HIV-positive. According to Meng Yongliang, who is HIV-positive, people born in the 1990s don't mind hanging out with HIV-positive people, but they don't like talking about it.

Meng Daguo's 18-year-old son feels unhappy about the attention the village receives. While Meng argues that media reports helped to get the government to focus on them, his son says that such attention ruined the reputation of the village and its young people's futures.

"Even though we are an AIDS village, we survived. The young people will live a better life," said Meng, who is also HIV-positive.

Liu Shulin, a Wenlou local, worries about his son's marriage prospects, as both his parents are or were HIV-positive. "It is hard for young people like him to find a wife, I hope he can get married and give birth to healthy grandchildren."

In early 2013, Liu sent his son to Zhengzhou to find a job. "You can never come back, and don't tell anyone around you that you are from Wenlou. Find a wife there, and live your life," he said.

The Beijing News - Global Times

Posted in: In-Depth

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