20 years after blood drive disaster, residents in China’s ‘AIDS Village’ soldier on

World Today

It is a freezing cold morning. The first snow has quietly fallen at night and blanketed the village of Wenlou in white. A three-wheeler heading for town leaves tracks in the snow. Driving it is 37-year-old Liu Geling, a fruit seller who normally begins his day while his fellow villagers sleep in peace.

Over the course of the next few hours, Liu Geling will purchase goods from the wholesale fruit market and then drive through nearby villages to sell them – it is a typical scene that is repeated across China thousands, if not millions, of times.

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The only difference is that apart from the daily conflicts of life, Liu is also waging a daily battle for life – a fight that he has been engaged in for over 15 years, ever since he was diagnosed with AIDS.

More than two decades have passed since a disastrous blood collection drive led to an AIDS epidemic among the peasants in Wenlou, a monumental tragedy that led to the village in Henan Province being infamously known as China’s “AIDS Village.”

However, amidst the tragedy, the people of the village have shown remarkable resilience, dignity and grace, as they fight each day to live.

Yet, the snow-topped tombs that dot the landscape in the region are a stark reminder of the fragility of life. Some 200 people of the 678 who were infected in that fateful drive in the 1990s have already died.

2003 was the worst, as 26 people died after suffering the nightmarish illness, said 60-year-old Guo Xiu. Seven of them, Guo recalls, died on the same day.

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“That day, the whole village was holding funerals, with the sounds of somber trumpets everywhere,” added Guo, who is one of the several survivors from among the first batch of people who had been diagnosed as HIV positive.

Among those who died that year was her husband. Unable to contain herself after the loss, Guo had tried to commit suicide by swallowing a pesticide, but she survived.

“If God let me live on, then I will in happiness,” she said, recalling the events of that year.

For Liu, however, the situation is different. His resolve comes from immediate needs and his responsibilities.

“I’ve got no choice,” he said, referring to his wish to provide for his two adolescent daughters, 87-year-old grandfather, and 63-year-old mother.

Apart from the tragedy of the illness, the only other constant between him and Guo is poverty, a reality that is visible in many households across Wenlou, just as it was 20 years ago. At that time, many in the poverty-stricken villages of Henan Province had chosen to sell their blood in exchange for a few dollars to supplement their minimal income.

The blood collectors had told them that the drive would do them no harm and help save lives. None of them had ever imagined that the unsanitary collecting procedures would result in havoc in Wenlou.

The only silver lining for patients such as Liu and Guo is that they have free access to antiretroviral drugs, and can also get free treatment when symptoms emerge. This is due to revelations of a Wuhan University doctor who revealed the village’s epidemic to the public in 1999.

In 2003, then vice premier Wu Yi visited the patients in Wenlou and the village was then listed as a demonstration location for AIDS prevention and treatment. The government has since provided the villagers with free drugs. Former premier Wen Jiabao also visited Wenlou twice in 2005 and 2007.

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Wenlou now has more than 300 people who have been diagnosed with AIDS, but the mortality rate is close to the national average. There are also no new reported case of AIDS since 2004.

Over the years, the government also allocated millions to help improve the village’s infrastructure, including roads, the health center, and the primary school.

Having learned a painful lesson from the village’s tragedy, China has since constituted more rigid laws to protect the health of blood donors and users, stipulating that blood collection drive must strictly comply with clear operation procedures and regulations. Blood collecting for profit is also strictly prohibited.

Liu knows he will always be labeled as someone from the “AIDS Village” his whole life, but he said if there is one thing the last two decades has taught him it’s: “Living is more important than a good name.”