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AIDS epicenter villagers fight prejudice as they seek work
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23:03, December 01, 2008

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Kong Chunyi, 35, is in the prime of his working life, but he's given up hope of finding a city job like so many of his rural peers, because of the scary name of his disease: AIDS.

He doesn't even need to tell prospective employers about his disease.

"The name of my home village on my ID card will scare employers, since Wenlou Village is universally known as an AIDS village," he said.

Contaminated blood transfusions given to poor farmers before 2000 have spread the disease in rural areas in central China's Henan Province. In Wenlou, the epicenter of the problem, 70 percent of the families in the village have infected members, saidZhou Yunyun, a village official.

He said there were 368 HIV carriers in the village, or about 10percent of the population, as of November. No new AIDS cases have been diagnosed in Wenlou in the past few years.

Graves scattered among the farm fields remind people that hundreds of AIDS patients died during the past few years. An air of pessimism hangs over life.

"All AIDS patients can get free medical care here, but their lives have not improved much," since the disease limits their employment prospects to farming, said Kong.

Things began to change after a facility to cultivate edible mushrooms was set up in Wenlou last year. It offers jobs to AIDS patients like Kong.

"The plant employs as many as 200 farmers in the busy seasons of spring and autumn, when a day of work can yield 45 yuan," said Kong. That sum is equivalent to about 6.6 U.S. dollars.

He said about 80 percent of workers in the plant were AIDS patients.

Lei Xunchun, another plant worker, said he felt better physically when he got a job because he could do useful work instead of relying on subsidies.

The plant earned 1.65 million yuan from the spring harvest, and the outlook for the autumn harvest is expected to be about the same, said Yue Dongfeng, an agronomist-turned businessman, who founded the Lantian Edible Mushroom Plant in Wenlou.

He said the farmers were enthusiastic about growing mushrooms as a cash crop. But he was finding it tough to sell the product, because anything made in Wenlou encounters market prejudice.

"We have not developed a brand name for our mushroom products, because the village name" has a negative image, said Yue. Most sales are made to customers who know the facility.

Yue said although people know the AIDS virus isn't transmitted through food such as mushrooms, the plant does not allow AIDS patients to work in such positions as picking and packaging.

"We made the rule under market pressure, because our customers said they would feel uneasy if they knew the mushrooms were touched by AIDS patients," he said.

Zhou said Wenlou is a production base for many vegetables, but its farm products do not sell well because of prejudice against AIDS patients.

"When Premier Wen Jiabao visited here last November, he shook hands with AIDS patients, and asked for a taste of local vegetables. But even his 'role model' has had little effect in promoting sales," he said.

Yue remains hopeful about business prospects. He said he has talked with some overseas buyers about his Wenlou mushrooms.

"In societies that are more tolerant about AIDS, Wenlou might one day become a brand symbolizing love and care for AIDS patients," he said.

The Ministry of Health said on Sunday that 264,302 people in China have so far contracted HIV, of whom there were 77,753 AIDS patients as of the end of September. Of the total, 34,864 had died of AIDS.


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