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HIV/AIDS sufferers coming out from the shadows
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17:06, December 01, 2008

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Hotel guest Dr Bai was annoyed his breakfast was taking such a long time and was quite pleased to finally see a waiter arrive at his table - but this was no ordinary waiter. About six months ago this man had discovered he was HIV positive and like most people in China was terrified by the "killer disease".

Soon after the diagnosis he tried to kill himself.

But after psychological counseling and becoming aware of treatment available, he regained his confidence in life. Bai knows the waiter's ordeal better than most doctors. "As an HIV positive myself, I understand how he feels," says the doctor, who declines to reveal his full name.

Bai is a HIV/AIDS treatment expert, and regularly participates medical forums and awareness campaigns.

He says thanks to improved medicine, HIV sufferers today can live normal lives, however stigma and discrimination still cast shadows over their lives.

HIV sufferer Bei Fang has been an active volunteer in a support group and believes the day will come when people living with HIV/AIDS were not afraid to reveal their infection.

"With respect to others, they are willing to remind their dentists and sex partners of necessary protections," he says. "In return, they would receive due respect and understanding, rather than discrimination and desertion."

Bei made the remarks after watching a stage drama, They, produced by students from China Renmin University, based in Beijing.

For the past 10 years, the university has been promoting awareness of HIV/AIDS among its students, especially those who are homosexual.

They tells the story from the perspective of a doctor. With most of her patients showing up in masks and sunglasses, the doctor refers to them by numbers and never by name. After many unsuccessful attempts to save her patients, the doctor falls into great despair.

But then a patient called Li Ming comes along. Li becomes an ardent volunteer reaching out to the high-risk communities, such as unlicensed prostitutes and the gay population, to raise awareness of the disease and promote safe sex to stay away from HIV.

Bei enjoyed the drama but says the reality of living with HIV is not as gloomy as the play revealed.

"When I was down there as an audience, for a moment, I was thinking, 'is my life really that miserable?'" he says.

"I would say, 'yes', 10 years ago when there was no medical treatment available. But for now, my answer is no, a definite no.

"I feel grateful to realize that there have been so much progress in our society's overall response to HIV/AIDS."

Dr Bai says AIDS is no longer something people die of, but die with. "Thanks to great medical achievement, AIDS is now in essence a chronic disease," says the doctor.

"It is infectious and so far incurable. However, with appropriate surveillance and treatment, most people living with HIV in China are now able to live a life as normal as that of the healthy."

The Chinese government offers free treatment for HIV victims. Known internationally as anti-retroviral therapy or ART, the therapy checks the development of the human immunodeficiency virus in the body.

Dr Bai says because of the improved treatment, there are now fewer patients dying of AIDS at a relatively young age.

"Most of them are dying of AIDS because they haven't received timely treatment due to misdiagnosis. By the time they arrive in our hospital, it is already too late," he says.

In theory, Bai says, most people living with HIV in China can have a life easier than that of those with diabetes.

"With a few tablets a day, they don't have to worry about their diets or taking much exercise, they can just lead a normal life," Bai says. "It is entirely possible that someone you know who looks completely healthy is in fact living with HIV."

However, the doctor admits that most people living with HIV/AIDS can't have a normal life.

Back in the 1990s when there was no effective or affordable treatment for AIDS and the disease was completely hushed-off from society, the shadow was so heavy that it was hard for people living with HIV/AIDS to "find a light in their lives", says Bei Fang.

"People usually associate those living with HIV as sinners rather than patients," Bei says. "I am glad to see the shadow getting thinner over the past decade."

Doctor Xu Lianzhi from Beijing You'an Hospital is one of the first to step into their lives and light a torch over their heads to dispel the shadow.

A pioneer in treating HIV/AIDS in China, Xu would offer her time and listening ears to her patients. As the patients gathered regularly at her home, the "Home of Love" was born.

A self-supportive group mainly consisting of HIV/AIDS patients, "Home of Love" was previously "Noah the Ark" for people living with HIV/AIDS in Beijing where they could openly discuss their problems, find commiseration and solace from each other. HIV patients found the courage, support and confidence as they ventured back into society.

Hundreds of similar centers have mushroomed across the country. Members of such groups are no longer limited to people living with HIV/AIDS, but also healthy volunteers.

Xiao Dong, the prototype of Li Ming in the drama, is one of them. The founder and head of a volunteer team engaged in AIDS prevention among homosexuals, Xiao is in reality a healthy 32-year-old gay man.

A former TV producer and a ringleader of an online gay community, Xiao has been deeply concerned about the high-risk behaviors among the gay population.

In recent years, men who have sex with men have become the most at risk of HIV/AIDS, and infection rates are rising, according to reports from the National Center for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC).

Three years ago, at the encouragement of Shi Wei, who was then the head of CDC in Chaoyang District, Beijing, Xiao founded a gay volunteer team to carry out intervention among the otherwise hard-to-reach gay community in Beijing.

Over the past three years, Xiao and his members visited almost every place in Beijing where gay men were believed to gather, such as bars, saunas and parks.

He would give lectures on AIDS prevention, distribute condoms and encourage them to have free voluntary counseling and testing.

"We're racing against time to let more gay and bisexual men know the importance of safe sex," Xiao says.

Dr Bai spent a weekend last month at a Beijing hotel for a forum on prevention of HIV/AIDS. He says he believes society would open up more.

"If I were a diabetes expert and it happened that I myself also suffered from the problem, I would not hesitate to reveal my health condition," Bai says. "But I have to consider what my statement could bring to my family.

"It is not that I am not courageous enough, rather the society is not yet ready for such an open revelation.

"But I can see it is coming."

Source:China Daily

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