Blood donated for transfusions in China is still not routinely tested for HIV, despite a legal requirement to do so, triggering a “hidden epidemic,” an AIDS activist said on Tuesday.
The health ministry should offer free HIV tests to all people who have received blood transfusions since 1987 - about the time that AIDS first appeared in the country. Their relatives should be tested also, said Wan Yanhai, head of the Beijing Aizhixing Institute of Health Education.
“There’s been no official statement about blood transfusions or the blood products-related AIDS epidemic,” Wan told reporters after a news briefing in Beijing, where he unveiled a letter to the health ministry calling for action.
Last year, the government said it would severely punish those responsible for serious diseases transmitted by transfusions. The move followed several cases in which people were infected after receiving blood sold by HIV carriers.
Political sensitivity and social stigma still surround AIDS in China, and the government’s slowness to acknowledge the epidemic contributed to its spread, especially in the central province of Henan, where in the 1990s millions sold blood to unsanitary clinics.
Despite the scandal surrounding the infection of poor villagers who sold their blood to supplement meager incomes, donated blood is still not screened carefully enough, Wan said.
“In many places, the blood is not tested,” he said, adding that many people are unaware they had even been exposed to the virus and the government was unwilling to investigate, lest they fuel public anger. “It’s a hidden epidemic.”
The health ministry was not immediately available for comment.
There were about 25,000 deaths from AIDS across China in 2005. Last month, Beijing lowered by around 30 percent the estimated number of people living with HIV/AIDS to 650,000, yet warned against complacency, saying that the figure was still rising with many people unaware of the danger.
Of those, around 11 percent are thought to have been infected from blood transfusions, compared to around 40 percent each for cases transmitted sexually and by intravenous drug use.
NO PROGRESS IN COMPLAINTS
Law suits and victims’ complaints to hospitals and government departments have so far made little progress, according to several AIDS sufferers and their relatives who attended the conference.
One, who identified himself only by the surname Xiong, said his son had been infected receiving a blood transfusion during a routine dental operation in Beijing in 2002. He only found out one year later when his son fell ill and was diagnosed as being HIV-positive.
“They said it was an individual case and weren’t interested,” he said of his complaint to the hospital.
Xiong spends more than 1,000 yuan ($124) a month of his own money on drugs for his son, and does not dare tell the school of his son’s status, fearing he’ll be thrown out.
Li Xige, from Henan province, said she only found out she was infected when her eldest daughter died two years ago.
“Not a single lawyer would take my case,” Li told reporters, fighting back tears.
Treatment in different parts of China varies wildly, patients say, and tests that are supposed to be free often come with hidden charges.
“Shanghai seems to deal with it a lot better,” said one woman from northeastern China, who did not want to be named. “In other places the sick are simply being marched off to face death.”
Activists fear an explosion in the number of people infected by contaminated blood transfusions and want the government to face up to the problem.
“The government has not investigated the situation,” Wan said. “They don’t want to take the responsibility.”
Revision date: June 11, 2011
Last revised: by Jorge P. Ribeiro, MD