News (Updated March 25, 2007)

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Filmmaker: Beijing more open about AIDS

By MIN LEE, AP Entertainment WriterSun Mar 25, 2:03 AM ET

A filmmaker who won an Oscar for a documentary about orphans of Chinese AIDS patients says Beijing is now more open about the disease after being accused of covering up the 2003 SARS outbreak.

"Since 2003, after SARS, they're open about it. I would say they're not doing it for show," said Ruby Yang, who won an Oscar last month for her 39-minute documentary, "The Blood of Yingzhou District."

China had been accused of covering up the outbreak of SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, which killed 349 people there and 774 worldwide.

Yang said at a talk at the University of Hong Kong late Friday that the Chinese government "put a lot of effort" into public service announcements about AIDS that she helped produce. "Their attitude has changed a lot," she said.

Still, the Beijing-based Chinese-American filmmaker was cautious when asked whether anyone had been punished in the blood-selling schemes that helped spread AIDS in China in the 1990s.

Operators used dirty needles, and people selling plasma — the liquid in blood — were replenished from a pooled blood supply that was contaminated with HIV.

"I read that some officials got jailed, but still the main people responsible have not been punished," she said. "I'd rather not discuss this."

The Chinese government and the United Nations say China's problem of tainted blood had largely been brought under control. Last year, only about 5 percent of new reported HIV infections were blamed on blood selling, which has been banned, or on tainted transfusions, the health ministry says.

Surviving victims say they have not been adequately compensated for their suffering and are unfairly discriminated against.

"The Blood of Yingzhou" focuses on the discrimination against orphans of AIDS patients.

Yang said she hopes to show a longer version of the movie in China with updates about the children.



Speaking truth to power in China

Today I was in the presence of greatness — greatness in this case being a tiny Chinese octogenarian named Gao Yaojie.

21072006_china1.jpgDr. Gao, a firebrand obstetrician and one of China’s first female physicians, this week paid a maiden visit to the United States to receive a humanitarian award for what began as a quixotic one-woman fight against AIDS in the world’s largest country.

Dr. Gao was born so long ago that her feet were bound into tiny bundles no larger than my mobile phone, as was the custom among the aristocracy in Old China. She survived Japanese air raids and only just lived to tell about her beating at the hands of Chairman Mao Zedong’s Red Guards when she refused to join them in service to fanatical socialism during the 1960s and 70s. She walks slowly and painfully, but I don’t know if it’s her bound feet, her long-ago beatings, or her advanced age that’s to blame. Or maybe it's the burden she carries with her always as a doctor and an advocate for some of China's sickest and poorest patients.

Back in the 1990s, when Chinese dogma held that AIDS was a foreigners’ disease, Dr. Gao learned that HIV was decimating central Henan province. A government-endorsed blood-selling campaign had led to the infection of thousands of farmers. She traveled to villages to provide medical care and free informational brochures to people who had no idea why they were dying — and took on the local cadres who were trying to cover up the mounting crisis. She was harassed and hounded, but she persisted.

On Feb. 1, as she headed out to collect a U.S. visa so she could attend a banquet to be held in her honor in March by Vital Voices Global Partnership in Washington, she was detained. Only under international pressure was she allowed to visit and collect her award at all.

Today she came to Radio Free Asia, where she was interviewed by my colleagues Zhang Min and Shen Hua in Mandarin Chinese about her work, her life, and the struggle to eradicate AIDS in the world’s largest country. Her small stature and slow gait belie a unique intensity and fierce temperament that surely lie behind the dismissive, almost-Gaullic “fffft” sound and hand-wave she makes at the mention of top Chinese officials, whom she clearly cannot abide.

“I am very concerned that the authorities will find new ways to keep me down when I return to China,” she said in her heavy Henan accent, her interview translated into English by another RFA colleague, Luisetta Mudie.

“I am particularly worried about my family. Both my son’s and my e-mailboxes have been closed…”

In the early 1990s, commercial blood stations flourished in Henan. Some farmers who sold blood became infected with HIV through unclean equipment. Sellers sold blood by volume, so to reduce payments and allow farmers to recover faster, the stations often re-transfused them with red blood cells left after the valuable plasma was taken. Now, Gao says the problem hasn’t been solved, just brushed under the rug.

“The government-run blood-banks are closed. But not only have the black market blood-banks not closed, they are on the increase again,” she said. “Recently they discovered some people in Guangzhou who had been selling their blood for 10 years, from midnight to 6 a.m.”

Gao is credited with saving hundreds of thousands of lives in China after she launched a one-woman crusade to expose the blood plasma donor business that triggered an HIV/AIDS epidemic in Henan province. It was she who found a link among a rising number of patients with AIDS: All had donated blood plasma at unsanitary collection centers, for about U.S. $5 per donation.

She said AIDS often left the poorest and most vulnerable in society without hope or help. “I have seen a young child of 19 months die of AIDS and an old man in his 70s in a Henan hospital. The situation for women is even worse, because they can often be hit by AIDS via blood transfusions during childbirth, or they sell blood...And it’s not just in Henan. There are many other places where the problems are just as bad. In Shanxi it’s even worse than in Henan.”

Different in China

“The epidemic is different in China from anywhere else because I have spoken to AIDS groups here in the United States and they say it is mostly transmitted through sex and intravenous drug use. But in China, while I don’t deny the transmission of the virus through sex between men, and I don’t deny drug use, the largest part of transmissions occur through the blood trade,” Gao said. “Most of the cases I have seen weren’t transmitted sexually. They were transmitted through blood transfusions.”

Gao’s view isn’t popular in many circles, where local officials tend to report HIV infections as transmitted by intravenous drug use, making the illegal blood-trade less visible on the official record. She has been repeatedly harassed, had her phone cut off, and held under virtual house arrest by local officials angered by her forthright style and tireless work on behalf of China’s AIDS patients and orphans.

Many cases, many causes

In December, UNAIDS reported in its 2006 Epidemic Update that the Asia-Pacific region suffered 630,000 deaths from AIDS-related illnesses in 2006. HIV infection risk is associated in Southeast Asian countries with unprotected commercial sex, sex between men, and unsafe injecting drug use, the Update said. The report blames the failure of governments to adequately address the role of sex between men in the epidemic.

A Feb. 24 article in The Lancet notes that China’s first AIDS case was identified in 1985 in a dying tourist. By 1998, HIV had reached all 31 provinces and a phase of exponential growth, with 650,000 infections by 2005. Gao lauded the health ministry in Beijing for taking an enlightened view of HIV/AIDS in China. But she wasn’t very optimistic that the vision of leaders in Beijing would ever be implemented on the ground. “The level of education of local officials is really very low,” she said.

I asked Dr. Gao how her gender may have slowed, or accelerated, her career and her cause. A good clinician, she answered the question obliquely—directing my attention away from herself and toward the massive problem at hand. “This work is very, very hard. Very difficult,” she said. “Most people, male as well as female, simply burn out after short periods of working with AIDS patients in China.”

Then she handed me a CD filled with photos she has taken of Chinese AIDS patients. “I can tell you a story about every one of them,” she said. “Every one.”


HK, Guangdong to boost efforts to prevent HIV

By Teddy Ng, Qiu Quanlin
Updated: 2007-03-21 09:18

Hong Kong and Guangdong have agreed to increase joint efforts to stop the spread of AIDS after the neighbors each reported record numbers of new HIV cases last year.

Hong Kong's Department of Health revealed that the special administrative region (SAR) reported 373 new cases of HIV in 2006, up 19 percent on the 313 cases in the previous year. The number of new cases has grown steadily from 213 in 2001 and 268 in 2004.

In Guangdong Province, 4,823 new HIV cases were recorded between January and October last year, up 8.4 percent on the corresponding period in 2005, sources from the Guangdong Provincial Health Department said.

"As many of the new cases were a result of sexual activity, we will work with the Hong Kong health department to launch a series of education campaigns to increase public awareness," said Yu Dewen, a spokesman for the Guangdong health authority.

As part of a coordinated surveillance and prevention scheme signed in early 2003, information on new HIV cases is released every two months to the public by both sides.

Guangdong currently has 145 hospitals that offer medical checkups and treatment for people with HIV from both Guangdong and Hong Kong.

A spokesman for the Hong Kong health authority said the two sides had previously released an educational film, "Love Under the Sun", which was produced by renowned moviemaker Johnnie To.

He said the department was also using the HIV epidemiology electronic platform, which was set up with 13 cities in the Pearl River Delta region, to track and monitor the HIV situation there.

Microbiologist Lo Wing-lok from Hong Kong said both the SAR and the Guangdong government should join hands to speed up their education campaigns.

"The public must be made aware that AIDS is a serious disease that can leave them unable to work and puts a heavy burden on their families. They should also know that the medicines used to treat the disease have side effects," he said.

But Lo said more proactive measures should also be taken, including giving free checkups to Hong Kong men on the mainland and to prostitutes in Hong Kong.

"In the past, all prostitutes, regardless of whether they were from the mainland or not, could enjoy free medical checks for HIV. But the SAR government recently changed the policy and now demands that non-residents pay the full cost of the service, which is almost HK$1,000," Lo said.

"This discourages the prostitutes from having regular checkups and therefore creates a greater public health risk," he said.



HIV-infected Canada woman charged with sex assault

Fri Mar 23, 2007 7:46 PM BST

By Scott Valentine

TORONTO (Reuters) - A Canadian woman who had sex with men she met in bars, without using a condom and without telling them she was HIV-positive, has been charged with sexual assault, police said on Friday.

Toronto police Detective Joe de Lottinville said three men had come forward by Friday, but the total could be far higher.

"This was a case where the person that's been charged knew exactly what she was doing," he said. "I don't even want to guess how many men may be involved."

According to de Lottinville, Robin St. Clair, of Hamilton, Ontario, west of Toronto, was diagnosed in 2003 with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. In 2004 public health officials issued her with an order that required her to disclose her HIV-positive status to potential sex partners.

He said St. Clair had been "quite sexually active" in the bar scene since then and had also sought out men on at least one Internet dating site.

On Friday police took the rare step of issuing a public alert complete with a picture of St. Clair to help locate anyone who has had sex with her, and de Lottinville said two men came forward within a few hours.

"We're expecting more but it's complicated," he said. "People may be afraid or embarrassed to speak up."

St. Clair's case, while rare, is not the first instance in Canada of an HIV-positive woman being charged with assault.

In 2005, Jennifer Murphy was convicted of sexual assault for failing tell a soldier at an Ontario army base that she was infected prior to having unprotected sex with him.

Murphy is set to go to trial in St. John's, Newfoundland next month on identical charges involving another man. She denies that she hid her HIV-positive status in that case.


Thailand talking with drug firms - U.S. chamber

20 Mar 2007 14:28:50 GMT
By Vithoon Amorn

BANGKOK, March 20 (Reuters) - Thailand will continue talks with global pharmaceutical firms on a drug pricing dispute after its decisions to issue compulsory licences for some medicines, an executive of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said on Tuesday.

A meeting with cabinet ministers produced hope the government and pharmaceutical companies could resolve their disputes, Daniel Christman, the chamber's senior vice president said.

"What we found here was a willingness of Thai government officials to continue a dialogue which, in their view, has been uninterrupted."

The meeting followed an announcement by Abbott Laboratories last week that it would not introduce new new drugs in Thailand in protest at the way the army-backed government ignored international drug patents.

Thailand issued a compulsory licence in January allowing it to make or buy generic versions of Abbott's Kaletra to treat HIV/AIDS to loud applause from AIDS activists.

Abbott is believed to be the first pharmaceutical firm to withhold new medicines from Thailand since the government shocked drug makers late last year with its first compulsory licence, for Efavirenz, an HIV/AIDS treatment made by Merck & Co.

Thailand has since also issued one for Plavix, a heart disease medicine made by Bristol-Myers Squibb and Sanofi-Aventis, the first time a developing nation has done so for such a treatment.

Christman said the consequences could be in foreign investment.

"One of the ways in which a country can compete successfully is to attract foreign investment through a reputation that says it respects the protection of intellectual property," he said.

The U.S. Chamber said a survey of 234 foreign business executives this month showed Thailand's new economic policies and poor intellectual property safeguards could disrupt foreign investment.

"Fully 75 percent of executives say the recent military coup and controversial new economic policies in Thailand would be factors in their final decision on investments over the next three years," it said in a statement.

Although legal under world trade rules, the compulsory licences, which allow governments to make or buy generic versions of medicines needed for public health measures, stunned drug makers who received no prior warning.

Other policy decisions criticized by foreign investors were moves to tighten foreign business ownership and capital controls on foreign funds brought in.

The chamber said executives put Thailand in the top spot among six Southeast Asian countries where government decisions had damaged business attitudes.

AIDS groups condemn Gambian president's 'miracle cure'

 Friday March 23, 08:24 PM

Yahya JammehDAKAR (AFP) - African campaign groups on Friday condemned Gambian President Yahya Jammeh's "miracle" treatment for HIV/AIDS, saying it had no scientific basis and that giving it to patients violated their rights.

Members of the African Community Platform on HIV/AIDS said they were "greatly concerned" by the remedy, which is based on medicinal plants and a Koranic verse, and according to Jammeh can cure the disease within days.

The president announced his discovery in January, and by the end of the month ten HIV-positive patients had enrolled to receive the treatment, a statement from the umbrella organisation said.

All participants were ordered to give up their antiretroviral drugs, it noted.

The umbrella group warned the treatment "does not respect scientific or ethnical norms and infringes on the patients' human rights" and said they were "greatly concerned by this treatment and its consequences."

It called on Jemmah to openly discuss the issue and urged the Gambian authorities to allow the treatment to be studied by international experts "to put to an end the confusion surrounding it."

In February, UN envoy Fadzai Gwaradzimba was expelled from Gambia after expressing doubts over Jammeh's miracle cure, suggesting it could lead to irresponsible sexual behaviour.

The African Community Platform is made up of the African Council of AIDS Service Organisations (Africaso), the Society for Women Against Aids in Africa (SWAA) and the African Network for People Living with HIV/AIDS (NAP).

Africaso was set up in 1991 to fight the spread of the disease across Africa, according to the statement.

The Swaa, which was set up in 1988, aims to protect women in particular from it and the NAP, created in 1993 promotes the rights of all those infected.

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