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Last Updated: Thursday, 13 November, 2003, 22:03 GMT
China's forgotten Aids victims
By Rupert Wingfield-Hayes
BBC correspondent in Henan

China's great central plain stretches unbroken for more than a thousand kilometres from the mighty Yangtze river in the south all the way to Beijing on its northern rim.

HIV patient in Henan
HIV-infected in Shuang Miao are simply waiting to die
It's China's historic heartland, its breadbasket, and some of the most densely populated soil on earth.

Right at its centre lies the province of Henan.

Unendingly flat, poor and rural, Henan is famous for one reason, its immense population, 96 million at last count.

But amid that vast population Henan holds a dark secret.

'Stalked by death'

The village of Shuang Miao in the far northeast corner of Henan is an unremarkable place.

Children in Shuang Miao
Many local children have become orphans

Its tightly packed brick courtyard houses just like thousands of others across this vast plain. But Shuang Miao is stalked by death.

The "strange disease" is what the villagers call it.

No-one's bothered to tell them what it really is that's killing them - Aids.

Of Shuang Miao's 3,000 people, at least 600 are HIV-positive, around 150 have already died.

There's a new funeral every week now. The fields around the village are dotted with fresh grave mounds.

Anguish and fear

An old lady in a blue smock and headscarf leads me to a small brick house in the heart of the village.

They (authorities) are waiting for us to die. Once we are all dead their problem will be solved
Shuang Miao resident
As I enter the courtyard a terrible wailing is coming from inside the house.

I stop at the door fearful of what I will find inside.

Slowly - one by one - women emerge from the doorway, tears streaming down their faces.

Despite my apprehension I am ushered inside.

In the corner of the room an emaciated man is lying on a rickety bed.

At first I'm not sure if he's alive, but then begins a shallow rasping coughing.

Beside the bed stand a woman and two small children. Between sobs the smaller, a little girl, calls out to her father. He is crying too.

"Be good, children," he whispers, "learn your lessons well".

He knows that death is now near.

Standing at his bedside his wife's anguish is mixed with fear. She has HIV too and she knows it may not be long before she too is sick and lying on this same bed.

"What will happen to the children? What will happen when I get sick," she pleads.

Blood scandal

These people are not just the victims of Aids, they are the victims of a huge and criminal scandal for which China's communist rulers are directly responsible.

In the mid 1990's the communist party authorities in Henan encouraged poor rural farmers to sell their blood.

Mobile collection units toured rural villages.

Millions of villagers took up the call.

But the blood collectors ignored even the most basic standards of hygiene.

Dirty equipment was used over and over. Donor blood was mixed together, the plasma removed, and then what remained pumped back into the donors blood streams.

HIV spread out of control through the whole blood collection system.

No-one for sure how many people were infected, at least 500,000, maybe more.

State secret

Having infected so many of its own people, China's communist rulers are now doing everything they can to stop the outside world from finding out.

Chinese girl walks past Aids poster in Beijing
As part of the BBC World Service's HIV/Aids season, Christopher Gunness will be hosting a live and interactive debate on Monday, 24 November

My trip to Shuang Miao was unapproved, illegal.

The people who took me there did so at great risk to their own safety. Villagers told me they had been warned by local officials not to talk to the media, that the Aids situation in Henan was a state secret.

The brave few who have spoken out are constantly harassed and threatened, some have ended up in jail.

And while it continues to deny the Aids crisis in Henan, the communist party is leaving the victims to die.

In Shuang Miao all the villagers I met had one request.

"Can you get us medicine?" they begged. "Please, we need medicine."

Last week with much fanfare China's health minister announced plans to provide free anti-Aids drugs to all of China's poor Aids victims.

But in Shuang Miao village there is not sign of them.

"They are waiting for us to die," one villager told me. "Once we are all dead their problem will be solved".

The BBC's Rupert Wingfield-Hayes
"China's government doesn't want to admit these orphans exist"

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