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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, April 8, 2011 - Volume 39 Issue 14
Mysterious 'AIDS-like' disease hits China - New virus or psychosomatic phobia?
Section One
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Mysterious 'AIDS-like' disease hits China - New virus or psychosomatic phobia?

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

Reports of what some news sources characterize as 'a highly contagious AIDS-like disease' said to be sweeping China are circulating in Western news media.

If accurate, the reports would be cause for serious concern, because the as-yet-unidentified virus is said to be far more contagious than AIDS.

Chinese government sources, on the other hand, say the reports are overblown, and in fact describe a psychosomatic reaction to fear of getting AIDS.

While reports of this mysterious disease date back as far as 2009, the latest stories apparently originate in a March 24 New Express Daily article.

That article became the source for a March 30 story in Epoch Times that was in turn quoted by a number of other newspapers and websites.

According to New Express Daily, they investigated 30 cases of the disease. Most of the 30 patients were said to have become infected through sexual contact.

According to the report, 'the disease seems to be highly contagious and can spread by contact via any bodily fluid - through kissing, shared utensils, sweat, and even protected sex.'

'Once infected, the immune system appears to be attacked, which results in a decrease of white blood cells and the body's ability to defend against infectious disease and foreign materials,' the newspaper said.

Patients were said to suffer 'night sweats, numb limbs, aches all over, creaking joints, rashes on [their] hands, and weight loss & swollen lymph nodes on [the] neck, sore knees that made clicking sounds, and pain all over [the] body.'

While symptoms are said to mimic AIDS, patients invariably test negative for HIV.

According to the Hong Kong-based Oriental Daily News, at least six Chinese provinces have reported cases of the disease.

The newspaper said thousands of patients in Beijing, Shanghai, Zhejiang, Jiangsu, Hunan, and Guangdong provinces had developed the disease. Cases have also appeared in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore.

According to the published reports, many patients unwittingly infected their families and friends, but no deaths have been attributed to the disease.

AIDS phobia, say Chinese officials
Official Chinese sources said in an April 4 article in the English-language Shanghai Daily that the patients were, in reality, suffering from a psychosomatic reaction to their own fear of HIV infection.

'It is not new in clinical practice and I have seen many such patients in Shanghai,' said Dr Lu Hongzhou, vice president of Shanghai Public Health Center and a leading AIDS expert.

'These people suffer serious mental pressure while suspecting they have been infected with the HIV virus and compare their own symptoms with those of AIDS. However, they have received many tests and all negative. It is actually AIDS phobia,' Lu said.

'According to Nanfang Daily, the Ministry of Health has required Beijing, Shanghai, Zhejiang, Jiangsu, Hunan, and Guangdong to launch a study of the problem,' the Shanghai Daily article said.

'A total of 59 blood samples of patients from the disease control and prevention centers in the six regions have been sent to laboratories in the United States for testing.'

'We tested seven to eight samples in Guangdong and it wasn't HIV/AIDS,' Lin Peng, director of AIDS Prevention and Control Institute under Guangdong Province Disease Control and Prevention Center, said.

He said the Chinese government would be announcing the test results soon.

The Chinese Ministry of Health previously did not recognize the disease, and would not carry out an investigation of its own when the illness first came to light in 2009.

Lurid stories and unreliable sources
Evaluating reports of the disease is complicated by the history of the story, and the fact that the news sources originally reporting it are considered unreliable or biased.

According to the Danwei China Media Guide, New Express Daily is 'a daily newspaper based in Guangzhou. The newspaper provides a financial incentive (50 yuan each) for anyone who can come up with newsworthy clue.

'The newspaper delights in tabloid stories and news items that are sure to get a rise out of readers. It often pulls content from the internet, sometimes without fact-checking, a practice that has not done good things for its reputation.'

Epoch Times was founded in 1999 by supporters of the Falun Gong religious sect, a group that has been involved in many run-ins with the Chinese government.

The Chinese government considers Falun Gong as an anti-government political organization, and it is now banned in China.

An associated Falun Gong publication, New Epoch Magazine, reported on the disease in June 2010, alleging that a group called 'Harbor' was seeking revenge for their own illness by 'intentionally donating blood to infect people.'

'Members of Harbor also wander around on busy streets. They spread the virus to all the prostitutes they meet. By 2009, many prostitutes in night clubs and on streets had become infected,' the New Epoch story said.

The first stories of the mysterious disease date to 2009, when New Tang Dynasty (NTD) TV reported 'that patients have symptoms of fatigue, chronic diarrhea, swollen lymph nodes, and weakened immunity.'

The stories were immediately reposted on libertarian Republican Ron Paul's website.

According to its website, 'New Tang Dynasty (NTD) Television serves more than 100 million potential viewers in China and around the world.

'Founded by Chinese Americans, and rooted in traditional Chinese culture, NTD serves as a unique bridge between the East and the West.'

NTD is owned by Falun Gong supporters based in New York.

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