HIV phobia: China’s new epidemic

One report that caught my roaming eye today was BBC News’ Chris Hogg’s tale of HIV phobia in China. Hundreds of anxious patients are worried they’re suffering from a “new disease with HIV-like symptoms”. So convinced was one that he refused to acknowledge all seven of his HIV tests that came back negative. Doctors at Shanghai’s Pasteur Institute repeated to him that it was his extreme guilt over having had sex with a prostitute that was doing his immune system zero favours.

But, for all its child-like obstinacy, HIV phobia isn’t entirely unjustified. These patients aren’t listening to their doctors due to mistrust, hardly earth-shattering given China’s long track record of covering up fatal diseases (e.g. Sars). And, sadly, the grave truth is that AIDS certainly is spreading throughout the country: government officials say around 700,000 people in China are living with the disease, and some 50,000 new infections occur every year. Meanwhile, concrete knowledge of HIV prevention remains incredibly low, not least in rural China.

The reality is that a well-informed discussion of sexual matters is slow to catch up with China’s increasingly liberalised younger generations. China is dealing with this at two grave extremes: at one end is the intense crackdown on online pornography and ‘harmful’ content, and on the other end of the spectrum lies the ill-informed public, from the disease phobes to the sexually curious (and active) and the actual HIV sufferers. Thanks to this lack of a balanced middle ground, sex education remains incredibly poor (once the sexual organs are covered, school’s out).

This is proof of China’s immaturity in dealing with a topic that, far from simply being ‘unhealthy’, may well bear serious consequences if it is not approached in a responsible way. Traditional taboos and Confucian values of male dominance and the consequential female sexual frigidity and ‘purity’ still hover. Extreme policies breed extreme results, and so it is no wonder that, without the appropriate guidance, HIV spreads and cases such as mistaking teenage pregnancy for weight gain occur.

As CNN reported, the government is working to curb the spread of HIV, namely through running educational campaigns to inform high-risk groups, such as sex workers. But deepening such knowledge amongst China’s curious younger generations by revitalising the country’s sex education is equally vital if positive steps are to be made in reducing paranoia and increasing responsibility. Sadly, though, overcoming social and cultural taboos is far easier said than done, and it may be a while until attitudes mellow down.

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