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China leader speaks out on AIDS

Breaking taboo, premier calls for more compassion

BEIJING -- Premier Wen Jiabao of China appeared on state television last night, comforting AIDS patients and calling on the nation to treat them with "care and love." The actions broke a longstanding taboo and made Wen the first senior Chinese leader to publicly address the country's fast-growing AIDS epidemic.

 

Wen's visit with three patients at Ditan Hospital in Beijing seemed intended to signal a new level of commitment by the ruling Communist Party to fight a disease that could infect more than 10 million Chinese by 2010, but that many Chinese officials have tried for years to cover up and ignore.

The report on the national evening news on World AIDS Day showed Wen shaking hands with patients, and a camera zoomed in as he grasped the arm of a patient and patted it gently. Another Politburo member, Wu Yi, also was shown shaking hands with patients.

Chinese and Western AIDS activists hailed the images as a breakthrough in their campaign to raise awareness of a problem the United Nations has warned could be a human disaster of "proportions beyond belief." More broadly, Wen's appearance reinforced the impression that China's new leaders are more open-minded and willing to take risks than their predecessors.

But it was unclear whether Wen's visit would be a onetime affair or whether it marked the beginning of a national campaign against AIDS, similar to the one the government launched against the epidemic of severe acute respiratory syndrome. Activists said sustained, high-level leadership would be needed to force China's rigid political system to confront AIDS. The government routinely limits what journalists can report on the subject and local officials often harass AIDS activists who operate outside government control.

Meanwhile, prejudice against AIDS patients runs deep in Chinese society. More than 1 in 5 Chinese have not heard of AIDS, and most who have heard of it know just enough to lead them to discriminate against infected people. Recent surveys indicated that only 41 percent of urban residents said they thought a colleague with the virus that causes AIDS should be allowed to continue working, while only 68 percent said they would care for an infected family member.

About 40 percent said they did not know AIDS could be prevented through use of condoms.

Wen said China would step up education and prevention efforts, and pledged to work toward what state media dubbed the "four frees": free treatment for people with the AIDS virus, free anonymous AIDS testing, free drugs to ensure pregnant women do not transmit the virus to their children, and free schooling for orphans whose parents died from AIDS.

1,000 volunteers dressed in red stand forming the bow symbol of the campaign against AIDS With the presidential palace of La Moneda at rear, 1,000 volunteers dressed in red stand forming the bow symbol of the campaign against AIDS, marking World AIDS day, in Santiago, Chile. (AP Photo)
 More World AIDS Day photos
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