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China's brand-name battle against AIDS

Beijing is turning to companies for HIV grass-roots education.

March 03, 2007|Evelyn Iritani | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — Trainer Ma Guohui has just introduced a roomful of young hairstylists to the chemistry of hair. Next up: HIV/AIDS.

Ma is on the front line of an international business campaign aimed at helping stop the spread of the deadly disease. In addition to promoting L'Oreal products, the immaculately coiffed Ma hopes to turn her Chinese students into scissor-wielding ambassadors for safe sex and tolerance. Words such as "condom" and "intravenous drug use" roll off her tongue as easily as the names of popular L'Oreal items.

Less than 15 years ago, the Chinese government still claimed acquired immune deficiency syndrome was a foreigner's illness. People called it aizhibing, or "love capitalism disease."

But the numbers eventually became impossible to ignore. Though the percentage of China's population infected with the human immunodeficiency virus is relatively small, the caseload has been growing rapidly, according to the United Nations' latest report on HIV/AIDS. China reported 183,733 new cases of HIV in the year ending Oct. 31, 2006, a 30% increase over the previous year.

Embarrassed by criticism of their handling of the 2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, and intent on averting an AIDS crisis similar to that facing such countries as South Africa, officials in Beijing have shifted gears. Now, they are aggressively recruiting foreign companies, grass-roots organizations and trade unions to join the battle against AIDS, encouraging such programs as L'Oreal's recently launched Red Ribbon campaign for HIV/AIDS.

By enlisting organizations that have influence with consumers or have large workforces, the government hopes it can reach vulnerable groups more quickly. This has also enabled global companies to introduce China to corporate social activism, a concept that is well developed in other parts of the world but new to this country.

"The Chinese government is much more open than before," said Lan Zhenzhen, a L'Oreal spokeswoman based in Shanghai. It was shortly after the SARS outbreak that the Chinese government launched an aggressive AIDS education campaign and began offering free retroviral drugs, voluntary counseling and testing, and drugs to prevent mother-to-child HIV transmission.

Thanks to that publicity blitz, many Chinese understand the basics of HIV and how the disease is transmitted, said Richard Howard, chief technical advisor for the Beijing office of the International Labor Organization, a United Nations agency devoted to worker issues. The Chinese government's most pressing concern is slowing the spread of the disease from high-risk groups such as prostitutes and intravenous drug users to the general population.

Some issues remain off-limits, though the lines aren't always clear. After reportedly being held under virtual house arrest for weeks, prominent AIDS activist Gao Yaojie was allowed to travel to Beijing last month to apply for a visa to visit the United States, according to media reports.

She had been invited to Washington by Vital Voices Global Partnership, an international women's group, to be honored for her pioneering AIDS work.

Gao played a key role in exposing a blood-selling scheme in which thousands of poor villagers in Henan province were infected with HIV in the late 1990s.

Local officials had tried to prevent her from making the trip to the U.S. The blood-selling scandal remains a politically sensitive subject for China's leaders because it exposed the seamier side of a booming economy that has left the poorest slice of the population without jobs or adequate healthcare.

In other ways, however, the government is tackling the issue. Last year, it passed a regulation prohibiting the firing of employees who are HIV-positive or have AIDS. China Railway Construction Corp., which has more than 200,000 employees, was the first state-owned company to establish a policy against AIDS discrimination and set up AIDS education programs at some work sites, Howard said.

The Chinese government, in partnership with the International Labor Organization, the Chinese Enterprise Confederation and the official All-China Federation of Trade Unions, launched a program in January to make AIDS education available in the workplace. The U.S. Department of Labor provided a $3.5-million grant to support the program, which will focus initially on migrant workers from rural China, who are more likely to engage in risky activities such as unprotected sex.

"There are 200 million people moving from rural to urban areas to get jobs," Howard said. "There's the potential for a huge jump from high-risk groups to the rest of the population."

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