China’s migrants are a new front in AIDS fight

By Lucy Hornby

BEIJING (Reuters) - The new face of AIDS in China is a shy man with a heavy provincial accent, a weathered face and the rough hands of a manual worker.

Zhang Xiaohu, a character in an educational film for migrant workers, is part of a trend that worries Chinese officials: the potential for AIDS to spread among the estimated 200 million rural migrants driving the country’s rapid economic expansion.

AIDS in China has to date mostly been limited to drug users, gay men, prostitutes and the victims of reckless blood-buying schemes in the 1990s. There are about 700,000 cases of HIV/AIDS in China, according to official statistics.

“The epidemic is lowly prevalent in general but it is highly prevalent among specific groups such as migrant workers, and in some regions particularly remote areas and the countryside,” Wang Weizhen, deputy director of HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment at the ministry of health, said on Sunday, according to state media.

Higher rates of sexually transmitted diseases and other risk factors among male migrants have spurred an intensified effort to reach them before HIV spreads faster among them, and into the broader population.

“Other at-risk groups are rather small, but this one is huge,” said Sun Xinhua, head of an office to combat AIDS that reports directly to the State Council, China’s cabinet.

China’s construction workers, miners and casual laborers have all the ingredients for HIV to spread. Often far from home, bored, and with some spare cash in their pockets, few of them use condoms when they visit prostitutes as rootless as themselves.

“You must stay away from these women and keep yourself out of trouble, especially when you are working away from home,” said Liu Guilin, 38, at a dusty construction site in eastern Beijing.

“There are many dark corners now in Beijing. There are always women coming up to you and trying to drag you away.”

Sexually transmitted diseases are more common among the migrants than the general population, but they have less access to healthcare and information than permanent city dwellers.

Their fear of rejection from co-workers and of losing jobs make many reluctant to test for HIV, which if not held back by drugs leads to full-blown AIDS and usually death.

“I heard that you are doomed if you get AIDS. So if we found out anyone had it, we would stay well away from him,” said Zhang Shiliang, 35, a slight cement layer who has left his family behind in Sichuan for six years while he forages for work.

Zhang, who said he was not clear on how AIDS spread, doubted that any of the hundreds of workers sharing his makeshift dormitory could have contracted the disease.

BARRIERS

The stigma and fear surrounding AIDS and embarrassment about talking about sex compound the difficulty of reaching the migrant population, who often lack access to information and deeply distrust officialdom.  Continued…

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