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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, September 30, 2016 - Volume 44 Issue 40
HIV surge in China: Gay students most at risk
Section One
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HIV surge in China: Gay students most at risk

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

In a report released this month, public health authorities in Nanchang, China, warn of a surge in HIV infections, particularly among university students.

Nanchang - formerly known in English as Nanking - is a city of more than five million people in southeastern China. It is home to 10 major universities.

The report from health officials there indicates that the rate of HIV infection among university students has increased 43 percent annually over the last five years. Over 80 percent of the new cases are men who have sex with men (MSM).

Nanchang is not the only city that is facing such a trend. In fact, data from China's National Health and Family Planning Commission show that the rate of new HIV infections among students has surpassed that of other groups, with 81.6 percent of the cases concerning young MSM who are still in school.

More than 100 new cases among students are reported annually in Beijing, while Shanghai reported 92 students infected with HIV in 2015.

LGBT activists blame the trend on the authorities, according to reporter Darius Zheng, writing in Gay Star News.

'The government emphasizes the morality of sex rather than the safety of sex,' said Liu Jiulong.

Now 37, Liu said he was not even aware of what homosexuality was until 11 years ago when he read about it online. He was diagnosed as HIV-positive two years later.

When the advertising company where he was working at the time found out about his status, they fired him, explaining that other employees were 'scared to come to work.'

'If [the health authorities] continue to use this mentality to make public health policies, China will pay the price one day,' Liu added.

Allen Chen, founder of the sex education advocacy group Friend Public Welfare, agreed.

'The intention [of the health authorities] is good, but it is easy to cause panic because in the Chinese context, there is little knowledge of homosexuality and a lot of misunderstanding,' Chen said.

In the past, HIV-positive students have been expelled from school and even now, HIV-positive graduates are excluded from government jobs. Last year, authorities said they would inform universities of the identities of HIV-positive students on their campuses so that the rest of the student body can be warned.

'As a result, the Gay students are depicted as high-risk and thus are further stigmatized,' Chen added.

Authorities, however, tried to defend their decisions.

According to Chinese health officials, the rise of HIV infections among MSM partly reflects success in reducing infections among intravenous drug users, among sex workers, and from the illegal blood trade.

According to Chinese authorities, while information on HIV-positive students is released to their schools, the schools are not supposed to publicly identify those students.

'No country in the world has discovered an effective way to curb the epidemic among Gay men,' said Wu Zunyou, director of China's Centre for Disease Control's (CDC) AIDS Prevention Centre, on state-owned TV in 2015.

'Most students know what AIDS is and how to prevent it, but the change of behavior remains a big challenge,' Wu added.

According to Wang Ning, an AIDS specialist from China's CDC, there should also be no reason to worry that the privacy of HIV-positive students will be violated as awareness of the disease grows.

'The understanding of privacy varies in different cultures. In China, some people think privacy means they don't need to tell anybody,' said Wang.

According to Wang, one reason for the huge increase in HIV infections is that some HIV-positive people withhold their status from sexual partners.

World Health Organization (WHO) officials have urged China to crack down on discrimination against people with HIV or at risk for the disease, because stigmatization impedes prevention efforts.

'While HIV testing is widely available, we know that many people are hesitant about getting tested for HIV because of fears of testing positive, the stress of waiting for results, inconvenience of going to a facility for testing ... and the fear of stigma and discrimination,' said Bernhard Schwartländer, WHO's representative in China.

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