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UPDATED: December 1, 2013 NO. 49 DECEMBER 6, 2012
Fighting HIV+'s Stigma
Patients with HIV face an uphill battle to receive regular medical services
By Yuan Yuan

CALL TO ACTION: Volunteers in Yinchuan, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, call for public participation in AIDS awareness on November 14 (WANG PENG)

Misfortune never comes singly. It is especially true for Xiaofeng, a 25-year-old HIV-positive sufferer of lung cancer in north China's Tianjin. Worse still, his request for lung surgery was denied by a local cancer hospital because he was found to be HIV-positive. Xiaofeng's only hope to receive treatment was to falsify his medical records.

Xiaofeng's case was initially micro-blogged by Li Hu, head of Haihe Star, a Tianjin-based NGO that helps people with HIV/AIDS in local communities.

"I got to know Xiaofeng's story on November 6 through a friend," said Li, who has seen many such cases and deeply understood Xiaofeng's situation.

After being denied by the Tianjin Tumor Hospital in early November, Xiaofeng went to Beijing's Ditan Hospital, a facility that specializes in treating infectious diseases, including HIV/AIDS, but the hospital lacks a thoracic department, and thus couldn't perform surgery on Xiaofeng.

"If Xiaofeng had any other alternatives, he would not get the surgery done by concealing his medical records," said Li, who was involved in planning the falsification strategy. "The cancer spread very fast. He had only two choices: Lie or die."

It worked. Xiaofeng was admitted to surgery. His father was instructed to inform the head of the hospital of the truth only after the surgery concluded. The administrator's furious reaction spoke volumes of the plight of HIV-positive individuals seeking treatment for other maladies.

Awkward situation

Vice Premier Li Keqiang, after learning of Xiaofeng's case from the media, immediately made a phone call to the Ministry of Health, asking to guarantee the right to medical treatment of people with HIV/AIDS. He also emphasized that work should be done to guarantee the safety of doctors and nurses treating HIV-positive people as well.

The Tianjin Tumor Hospital was deemed negligent by the Tianjin Municipal Health Bureau on November 22. The bureau announced that it would penalize hospital staff found to be responsible for denying treatment according to the Regulations on the Prevention and Treatment of HIV/AIDS released in 2006, which forbid hospitals from refusing treatment unrelated to immune deficiency solely on the basis of the patient's HIV-positive status.

Xiaofeng intends to sue, but he is not the only person with HIV facing medical obstacles in China.

"We have seen many cases where hospitals refused surgery for people with HIV/AIDS. The root cause is that they are afraid that hospital staff might become infected with the virus," said Xue Lei, who volunteers at Love Boat, a rights advocacy group for HIV-positive people in Beijing.

A car accident sent Xue to the emergency room in 2010. When HIV showed up in his blood tests after surgery, he was told he would have to go to an infectious disease hospital for post-surgical treatment. "Despite the regulations banning hospitals from turning away HIV/AIDS patients, there is no punishment for violation," Xue said.

"HIV discrimination at hospitals is groundless and might cost lives. So far, no medical professionals have contracted the virus after performing treatment, including operations for people with HIV/AIDS," said Wu Zunyou, Director of the National Center for AIDS and Sexually Transmitted Diseases Control and Prevention, an affiliate of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CCPCP).

"However, the ban has not been fully implemented, given that hospitals could cite other reasons to refuse treating them," Wu said, calling on health authorities to punish violators.

On the other hand, there is no law guaranteeing compensation to medical practitioners infected with the virus in the course of treating people with HIV. Any hesitance by caregivers to render aid further aggravates the problems HIV-positive people face in seeking medical treatment.

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