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Wednesday, 30 May, 2001, 16:10 GMT 17:10 UK
Bad blood spreads Aids in China
Death notices in Wenlou, where 65% of those tested have HIV
By Adam Brookes in Beijing

A scandal of stunning proportions is slowly unfolding in central China over the huge number of people being infected with HIV, the virus that causes Aids, through the sale of their blood.

All we can do is wait to die

Wenlou villager
The situation is particularly serious in the central Chinese province of Henan, where HIV is tearing through one rural community.

In the early 1990s, the provincial health authority set up collection stations to buy blood from local people. Many were infected with HIV as they gave blood.

Wenlou villager
Villagers say they cannot afford medical treatment
The blood was sold to pharmaceutical companies for the manufacture of blood products.

It was a lucrative business that generated revenue for the local health authority as well as juicy kickbacks for officials involved.

And poor farmers were drawn to the scheme for cash payments in return for their blood.

'Pariah' village

The road to Wenlou village straggles across the bland plains of central China.

This is Henan province - poor, over-populated, a swathe of grain-producing country, polluted cityscapes and ragged towns.

In this part of the province everyone knows about Wenlou - how a couple of years ago, the people who lived in this tiny village began to contract fevers, and strange wasting illnesses.

The epidemic has entered deep in the Henan countryside
And then they began to die.

Now to live in Wenlou village is to be a pariah.

"No one wants to touch anything of the dead," says a farmer in a blue Mao jacket by the roadside.

"No one wants to farm their land or buy their watermelons or eat their vegetables."

The story of Wenlou village is a story of China's crumbling interior, its corruption and the sheer callousness of its leaders.

Blood for cash

In the early and mid-1990s, the villagers of Wenlou, and many other villages, sold their blood for cash.

Some villagers went repeatedly to the blood collection centres and made a living from it.

Wenlou villager
The sick just wait to die in Wenlou
But the needles were contaminated with HIV.

And today, of those tested in Wenlou village, 65% are HIV-positive.

Of a population of 800, about 40 are dying each year.

The facilities at Wenlou's clinic - bare concrete floors, three wooden slatted beds - are terribly inadequate.

A few bottles of saline dangle on pieces of rusting stands. There's no other medical equipment.

Three people lie here weak, feverish and terrified. Their illnesses are Aids-related.

"I know I'm going to die," says a man in his 20s. "I don't have any money for the doctor and no one cares."

He says he sold his blood more than 10 times and was paid about three pounds ($4.25) for a pint of blood. He's been sick for four months now.

Children in Wenlou
Wenlou will be left with children and the old
His father stands watching, a squat 70-year-old with sallow-lined features and a blue Mao cap.

He describes his predicament on the verge of tears. And as he does so, the shape of life in rural China today comes clear.

"There's nothing I can do," he says. "I have this one son and his wife and kids. I can't afford to send the grandchildren to school. I spent everything on medical treatment. "

In rural China the guarantees of socialism are nothing more than memory.

The villagers of Wenlou must pay for every scrap of laughably inadequate treatment they receive. The state is doing nothing for them - no cash, no treatment.

Bad blood

China has only a handful of HIV/Aids specialists. Dr Li Taisheng, who works in one of Beijing's foremost hospitals, is one.

Wenlou villager: I know I'm going to die
"The people who sold their blood were peasant farmers. Hardly any came from the cities," he says.

"Blood selling was a very serious problem before 1995. A lot of our patients come from central China and they were infected with HIV.

"But in 1996 the health department issued new regulations and lots of small blood collection centres were closed down."

But it was already far too late. HIV was spreading.

It is not possible to calculate how many people were infected.

But in Henan province alone there were 287 official blood collection centres, and many more illegal ones.

The village feels betrayed
It was a huge business. Some researchers have put the number of people infected with HIV at these centres at 600,000.

"There's no way you can say Aids has been brought under control in China," says Dr Li.

"We're a long way from that. The sale of blood should be easy to control - I find it quite frightening that it wasn't brought under control. I don't really understand why not."

Health officials involved

The final crushing irony of Wenlou's story is that the blood collection centres were set up by health officials.

We have no money, this woman tearfully says
They bought the blood, extracted the plasma and sold it to pharmaceutical companies for profit.

It was a cockeyed business scheme run by the very bureaucrats responsible for Wenlou's health services.

Back at the clinic, the villagers break down one by one as they talk.

"All we can do is wait to die," says one woman. "My husband's sick, so am I. We've run out of money."

"Everyone who sold their blood has Aids. If the government hadn't let us sell blood then we wouldn't have caught Aids. Now the only people left alive are the children and the old."

China's socialist bureaucracy and its communist party were once fairly incorrupt, and tightly controlled.

But as China reforms, the discipline of the Communist Party is weakening.

Its governance is becoming feeble and corrupt and arbitrary. And in Henan, the failure of government has left the villagers of Wenlou riddled with HIV and stunned in the knowledge of their betrayal.

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Blood: The risks of infection
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