China Detains Health Official for Publicizing AIDS Coverup

By John Pomfret
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, October 8, 2003

BEIJING, Oct. 7 -- China has detained a provincial health official for allegedly making public a classified document showing that officials knew about an exploding AIDS problem in the countryside years before the government acknowledged its existence, doctors and human rights activists said.

Ma Shiwen, who was the deputy director of the Center for Disease Control of Henan's provincial health department, was arrested in August and charged with circulating state secrets by using his computer to send the report to AIDS activists in China, according to Human Rights Watch.

The New York-based group and Gao Yaojie, a prominent AIDS activists in Henan, said Tuesday that Ma had been given "at least eight years" in prison. But officials in Henan said Ma had not yet been sentenced.

Ma's arrest is likely to further hurt China's efforts to win nearly $100 million in funding from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. The fund has rejected two previous applications, partly because of China's attempts to hide the scale of the epidemic.

Earlier this summer, police beat up villagers in Henan after they protested the lack of health care for many AIDS sufferers in their village.

Hundreds of thousands of people in China are HIV-positive. A Beijing-based newspaper recently reported that the number of Chinese with HIV had jumped 140 percent over the last year, one of the highest growth rates in the world.

The AIDS epidemic in Henan was touched off in the early 1990s when provincial health officials began to push a plan encouraging peasants to sell their blood. Dealers bought blood from villagers and pooled it, mixing healthy blood with HIV-infected blood. They extracted plasma, a blood component with medical uses, and re-injected the rest of the blood back into the farmers' arms. AIDS spread quickly through the poor communities.

Henan's authorities tried for years to repress all reporting about the disease. Ma's arrest appears to be connected to the case of Wan Yanhai, a prominent AIDS activist who was detained for a month last summer after he received the document. Officials accused Ma, who prepared the document, of passing it to Wan; Wan said he did not know who e-mailed him the document. After AIDS activists and international organizations condemned Wan's detention, he was released and allowed to travel to the United States.

Chinese sources described Ma's arrest as a move by Liu Quanxi, the former director of Henan's health department and the man widely blamed for presiding over Henan's AIDS epidemic. Liu has remained a force in Henan politics and has avoided taking any responsibility for the epidemic, the sources said. Liu lobbied strongly for Ma's arrest, the sources added, as a way to warn anyone who might consider exposing his role in the epidemic there.

According to the classified document, Liu's department was "caught up in the get-rich craze" of the early 1990s as blood sales skyrocketed. Liu ordered the local medical center to focus on blood collection to earn revenue. He also led a blood-selling delegation to the United States in 1993-94, with the message that "there isn't any HIV in Henan province and the blood is cheap," the document said. He now holds a senior post in the province's legislature.



2003 The Washington Post Company


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