China Focus: Gay stigma hindering HIV prevention in China

2015-11-30 17:40:47 GMT2015-12-01 01:40:47(Beijing Time)  Xinhua English

HAIKOU, Nov. 30 (Xinhua) -- "Even if it's positive, you can still lead a normal life with treatment," said a doctor trying to calm Wang Nan as he prepared to take a HIV test on Monday, the eve of World AIDS Day.

"If positive, people will know I have AIDS because I'm gay. It will be worse than death," said Wang, who is using an alias for privacy, in a hospital in Haikou, south China's Hainan Province.

The few minutes before the test paper came back negative seemed a lifetime to Wang, who said he is more afraid of people knowing he is gay than of the virus.

Therein lies a problem that many campaigners believe is a big contributor to a recent rise in the rate of HIV infections among gay men.

According to AIDS prevention activist Zhang Jinxiong, "Many gay people in China are forced to have more risky and haphazard relationships as stigma prevents them from keeping long-term partners. To curb the spread of HIV, China needs to stem discrimination against gay people."

The key point is that attaching stigma to homosexuality encourages covert, risky homosexual behavior often without access to medical help and education.

"A large number of gay people who had risky sex resist HIV tests because they lack awareness or feel ashamed. Some even use marriage as a cover for their sexuality, putting their spouses at risk," said Damien Lu, a blogger on Aibai.com, one of China's top gay websites.

Wang had long wanted to take a test but he could never muster enough courage until Monday, when myriad media reports reminded him that men who have sex with men (MSM) are the most vulnerable to HIV in China.

Most of the reports were based on new figures from the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (China CDC) showing that the number of people living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA) in China had hit 575,000 by the end of October, with 177,000 deaths.

The China CDC said MSM have become the group with the highest infection rate. Around 8 percent of MSM in China are living with HIV/AIDS.

Infections among young people have become particularly noticeable, as 2,662 new cases of students living with HIV/AIDS were reported from January to October, a surge of 27.8 percent year on year, the China CDC said.

More detailed statistics from local CDCs show rapid growth in infections among young male students who have sex with men.

Of the 92 students who were infected this year in Shanghai, 88 percent were MSM cases.

Central China's Henan and Hunan provinces also reported increased infections among gay students this year. Henan had 82 student MSM infections, up 39 percent, while Hunan reported 154 students were infected, up 10 percent, according to local CDC centers.

In addition to stigma against homosexuals, irrational fear of HIV is another cause of discrimination that ironically contributes to the spread of the disease, said Zhang, who was found HIV positive 20 years ago.

Zhang, a regular guest on TV shows, wants to be China's Magic Johnson, the NBA basketball player living healthily 24 years after declaring himself HIV positive. "China needs a public figure to show the people that AIDS can be treated. An infection with HIV is not the end of the world," he said.

The life expectancy of people who are HIV positive rose from 36 to 55 between 2001 and 2014, according to a UN report. ( China's CDC described the spread of HIV/AIDS as a mild pandemic.

"To end the pandemic, we need to bring changes in our culture so that everyone treats those who are gay or HIV positive as normal people, including themselves," Lu said.

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