Walking the Great Wall for AIDS Awareness

China’s first AIDS Walk, Great Wall-Jinshanling Section October 13, 2012

Grad Life blogger Emilio Dirlikov is currently completing his Doctoral field research in Medical Anthropology in China.

It was Friday evening,  the eve of China’s first AIDS Walk. I sat at home with Xiaogang, the Walk’s director, awaiting a phone call. “You know, every time we organize such an event, we get a phone call from the public security bureau at the last minute to tell us we cannot hold the event anymore” he told me. He had been expecting the call for several days, but this time he hoped that things would be different.

Over the last decade, Xiaogang has participated in the growing efforts undertaken by the Chinese government to address the spread of HIV. With the help of foreign health organizations, the Ministry of Health began to more accurately detect and report the number of those infected. And since 2006, the Chinese government has provided free anti-retroviral (ARVs) medication nation-wide.

Although the prevalence of HIV remains very low (below .1% among adults), the total number of cases is estimated at between 430,000 to 1.5 million. Worse yet, many of those who are infected are thought to not know their status. If left unchecked, this population may spark an explosion of cases that could quickly become unmanageable.

Part of the problem, as Xiaogang sees it, is the lack of sexual education in Chinese schools and at home. For a recent full-length documentary he interviewed college students (Next Generation, 2011), both straight and non-straight, and found that while most had already had sexual experiences (some as young as 14), they all pointed to the internet as a major source of information. Or misinformation, in some cases.

The absence of (correct) information about HIV, and sexual health more generally, has led to widespread stigma and confusion. In addition to rumors common in North America, such as infected needles surreptitiously placed in public places, in my time in China I’ve been warned to not:

  • Hug, swim with, or share chopsticks with people infected with HIV;
  • Eat watermelons grown in Henan, the province where the infamous tainted blood-pooling centers of the mid-1990s took place;
  • Have sex with people from Yunnan Province, or most ethnic minorities for that matter.

In April 2011, many people took to the internet claiming they were suffering from AIDS-like symptoms, although health authorities had concluded they had not contracted HIV. The Ministry of Health and World Health Organization- Beijing Office both released statements in order to curb the effects of what they felt was a psychological condition “stemming from lack of understanding and fear of HIV.”

Health organizations, like the Beijing Gender Health Education Institute, which Xiaogang directs, work to fill in this gap in knowledge through public talks, events, documentaries, new social media, and a variety of other forums. Their operations are limited by not only personnel and funds, but also the Chinese government, which remains wary of the place of such non-governmental organizations in its one-party state.

And it’s this tenuous relation that kept Xiaogang anxiously awaiting a phone call that might stop more than a year and a half of work.

Xiaogang didn’t receive a phone call until the following morning, as we prepared to leave the house. Fortunately, it was just Dawei, a Chinese man who has been living with HIV for more than eight years, wondering if we were still riding together to the bus pick-up site.

In the end, over 110 walkers spent a glorious day on the Great Wall to raise funds and awareness to combat the spread of HIV in China. People shared stories of how they came to participate in the event, of the people that had donated money so they could walk, of those they’d lost to the disease. It was definitely a humble but powerful beginning to what I, and the rest of the people who raised more almost 150,000 RMB (~23,400 CAD), hope will be a long future of China AIDS Walk(s).

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