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AIDS, Rights Activists Protest [Detention] of Chinese Doctor

September 19, 2002

Alison Raphael

Human rights and AIDS activists are demonstrating in front of the Chinese consulate in New York on Thursday to protest the [detention]of a prominent and controversial Chinese doctor [accused of] releasing "state secrets" as a result of his efforts to uncover the extent of HIV infection in the East Asian nation.

"Dr. Wan Yanhai is an expert and a hero for addressing and exposing China's coming AIDS epidemic. We demand his unconditional release and urge the Chinese government to allow him to continue his invaluable work in his own country," said Xiao Qiang, director of Human Rights in China, a co-sponsor of the protest.

Between 1994 and 1997, Wan carried out extensive research on the incidence of HIV/AIDS in Henan Province in eastern China. He found that as many as 1 million poor farmers in Henan may have been infected with HIV by selling their blood to government-supported private firms that pooled donated blood and transfused it back into donors so that they could give more frequently.

[Wan's detention] is believed to be tied to this scandal. In August Wan received, and widely distributed, a memo from an anonymous source alleging that Chinese health authorities were aware of the reasons for the spread of AIDS in Henan as early as 1995, but took no steps to stop it. Wan's wife, who lives in California, has suggested that the memo may have been a set-up.

At the time of his [disappearance] on August 24, Wan was leading the AIZHI (AIDS) Action Project, a coalition of health activists dedicated to providing the Chinese people with information about HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment, and had just completed a report criticizing the government for ignoring the needs of hundreds of AIDS orphans in Henan Province.

On September 4, China's Security Bureau informed AIZHI that Wan had been detained and [is under investigation for] disclosing state secrets. His whereabouts have not been revealed.

Human rights and AIDS groups participating in the demonstration are equally concerned by Wan's arrest. Calling Wan "China's number one AIDS activist," Laurie Wen of ACT UP, an international group that lobbies for AIDS prevention and treatment, said that his release was as much a medical issue as a human rights issue. "He's got to be released--he needs to keep working."

"Dr. Wan has been active in bringing to light a public health scandal that Beijing would like to sweep under the rug," said Ralf Jurgens, director of Canada's HIV/AIDS Legal Network. "He has taken extraordinary risks to break down the conspiracy of silence around AIDS in China and protect the rights of those infected."

Jurgens' group, in conjunction with New York-based Human Rights Watch, last Friday made Wan the first recipient of an "Award for Action on HIV/AIDS and Human Rights." Wan's wife accepted the award on his behalf.

The critical nature of China's AIDS epidemic has received increasing attention from international organizations. In 2000, the World Health Organization called for a "more aggressive" promotion of condom use, and in June 2002 a task force associated with UNAIDS published a report suggesting that as many as 1.5 people died of AIDS in China last year, more than double the number estimated by the government. The report, 'HIV/AIDS: China's Titanic Peril,' warned that China was "on the verge of a catastrophe that could result in unimaginable suffering, economic loss and social devastation."

Early this month a Chinese Health Ministry official acknowledged at a press conference that the number of infected persons has risen to about one million, and predicted that the number could rise to 10 million over the next decade if active measures were not taken. China is seeking a grant of US$90 million from the Global Fund to Stop AIDS, Malaria, and Tuberculosis.

OneWorld US

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