“I was calm when I found out I was infected with HIV virus. Although, I never imagined it happening, I was calm and only cried once,” said Lin Hui (pseudonym), a 20-year-old student in Nanjing.
Lin was diagnosed with HIV in 2014, a few months before his 18th birthday.
“I did not plan to inform my family, but since I was under 18 the hospital insisted that I do so. My mom came and the doctors talked to her privately. We did not talk about the illness directly, but she accompanied me to several treatments,” Lin said. “Since then I have been taking medicine, and now my body is in stable condition. Most of my health tests are good.”
Like many college students, Lin was infected through unprotected homosexual intercourse.
Acknowledging AIDS and taking action to help HIV carriers has taken China a long time.
In the 1990s, around 50,000 people contracted HIV through illegal blood selling. The government was reluctant to acknowledge the problem and denied that poor Chinese farmers could possibly contract the virus. For the Chinese government, AIDS was a “disease of foreigners, spread through illicit drugs and promiscuous sex.” Almost 20 years after the outbreak, the spread of AIDS through the illegal blood market is under control.
The government, according to Benhard Schwartländer, World Health Organizaton (WHO) Representative in China, “has been extremely pragmatic in rolling out the HIV response.” China has built “the largest methadorone clinic program in the world” in a very short period of time.
The real challenge today, said Schwartländer, is especially among young gay men, who seem to be beyond the reach of existing programs.
Southern Weekly reported the number of HIV carriers among newly enrolled university students increased from 482 to 2,552 between 2008 and 2014.
In 2008, 59 percent of these infections were spread through homosexual sex. That number swelled to 81.6 percent in 2014. According to China’s National Health and Family Planning, China had 7,249 HIV carriers and AIDS patients between the ages of 15 and 24 in 2014.
“Although that is not a large number, the increasing rate is particularly bothersome,” Wu Zunyou, head of the National Center for AIDS/STD Control and Prevention, told Southern Weekly. “Since 2011, the number of young people contracting the virus has been increasing by 30 percent, and by 2014 that number reached nearly 60 percent,” Wu said.
In 2014, more than 50 percent of the newly diagnosed HIV carriers across China’s 31 provinces were gay. In first tier-cities as Beijing and Shanghai, that number passed 70 percent, Wu said.
That’s not to say homosexuality caused China’s new wave of HIV infections. Rather, the government’s negligence and the societal stigma imposed on the gay community has made the group a more vulnerable target for HIV in China.
“I did not use protection, because I thought it was pointless. Same sex intercourse would not lead to pregnancy,” Lin said. “There is very little sex or AIDS prevention education on campus or in society in general. People only talk about AIDS in December [World AIDS Day] and then forget about it.”
Wen Yumei, a virologist, told Southern Weekly that education departments are paying attention to AIDS prevention on campus. “But some universities still think AIDS is a faraway problem and refuse take action. Universities also don’t have qualified teachers on this issue.”
China’s sex education lags far behind the country’s economic development. According to a survey conducted by Sohu.com, 32.2 percent of surveyed Chinese learn about sex through online articles, 24.4 percent through porn, and less than 1 percent said they received sex education from their family or at school.
Homosexual sex education is almost completely ignored by families, schools and society.
“How to educate and properly guide gays in China is a serious problem and a barrier to cross,” an official with Yunnan Health and Family Planning Commission told Southern Weekly. The official, who would not be named, said controlling the spread of HIV among gay men is essential to the country’s overall AIDS prevention.
China’s gay community is growing in recent years, and topics concerning homosexuality are becoming less of a taboo. However, the overall cultural and societal environment makes few gays willing to come out. Most gays and lesbians remain silent about their sexuality, and that has made it more challenging for groups to reach them and inform them about how to control risks.
“Around 20 to 30 percent of Chinese gay men end up in a heterosexual marriage and seek homosexual encounters on the side. That has also increased the spread of HIV in China,” Zhang Lingqi, an AIDS specialist, told Southern Weekly.
Sexual orientation and personal sexual behaviors remain sensitive topics in many countries.
While many counties are reluctant to deal with these matter at a government level, most have a strong network of NGOs to pick up the task.
“NGOs with a professional structure don’t exist at the same level in China,” Schwartländer said. There are LGBT groups and AIDS prevention organizations in Beijing, but they have very limited resources and capability to reach a larger crowd. The WHO representative said Chinese government usually is responsible for everything, but that it needs to learn that sexuality is an area more effectively reached by community efforts.
For HIV carriers, not only must they face social pressure – they must also find a way to accept their illness. Lin said he was an optimist and decided to take a positive approach to managing his illness.
“The world is not great, but it is not horrible either. The virus is an uninvited guest. Since we cannot send it away, we might as well try to make peace with it,” Lin said. “Medicine is progressing each day, and maybe one day the virus can be killed. But I want to tell healthy people that the AIDS virus is our common enemy. Carriers or AIDS patients are not.”