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Sex workers spread HIV over China-Vietnam border

11-30-2011 18:58 BJT

by Xinhua Writers Bai Xu, Cheng Qun

NANNING, Nov. 30 (Xinhua) - Like millions of other ordinary rural folk in China, the farmer never dreamed that he could marry a foreign woman.Neither did he know the risk.

"I have been living with HIV for several years," said the 52-year-old in Pingxiang, a border city of southern China's Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region adjacent to Vietnam.

The HIV sufferer is too afraid to use his real name, instead he uses the pseudonym Huang Haitong. He was born in the central province of Hunan. Huang went to Guangxi in 1998, and there he opened a small hotel. His wife, from Vietnam, was once a sex worker.

"She had a husband," Huang recalls in a heavy Hunan accent. After Nguyen Thi Hoa, also not her real name, gave birth to a boy, her husband died.

Cross-border marriage is commonplace in Guangxi. Huang married Nguyen in 2004. Two years later, she suffered recurring herpes outbreaks on her face. The couple spent a lot of money but the outbreaks didn't stop. Finally a doctor suggested they take a HIV test.

When telling the story, Huang's voice was low and calm. But he said on hearing the news, he felt his world had collapsed.

"I had never sold blood, nor was I addicted to drugs." He suspected that he got the virus from his wife, but added that it was not important now to find out which one of them had infected the other.

In many parts of China, HIV/AIDS still has a huge stigma. Knowing their condition, Huang's landlord asked the couple to leave. Over a three year period, they moved four or five times and Huang had to close his hotel.

Nguyen gave birth to a girl in 2009. Now the family of four lives in a 30-square-meter rented apartment in the downtown area of Pingxiang, sleeping in one bed. They have an electrical fan to cool them during torridly hot summer days, but they have no television.

Huang is not a local so he can't get a low-income subsidy from the government. Nguyen, working as waitress in a hotel, supports the family with her 900 yuan a month.


Covering 650 square km, Pingxiang, with its population totaling 110,000, is dubbed the "southern gate of China" and known as an important place of trade on the China-Vietnam border.

It is also seriously affected by HIV/AIDS.

Guangxi, with 50 million people and more than 60,000 HIV infections by the end of last year, was ranked the second among all autonomous regions, municipalities and provinces. Pingxiang had 638 people who were HIV positive in September.

Sex has become the top transmission channel in recent years, said He Bo, director of local disease control and prevention center (CDC) in Pingxiang. He noted that among the newly infected people in 2011, three-fourths were heterosexuals.

Cross-border transmission is common in Pingxiang.

According to a report on the official website of UNAIDS, Vietnam, with its population of 84 million, estimated 293,000 people living with HIV in 2007. "Of all reported HIV cases, 78.9 percent are 20-39 years old," according to the report. The border areas especially saw high infection rates.

Vietnamese sex workers are generally more likely to carry HIV than Chinese sex workers, He said. "Among every 100 Vietnamese sex workers two or three are infected, whereas the infection rate of Chinese sex workers is around one percent."

Some Vietnamese sex workers married Chinese, Zhong Haidong, a staff member of the CDC, said.

It's hard to count the number of cross-border marriages, as they are not registered by civil affairs authorities due to their complexity.

In this March, CDC did the first test on Vietnamese women who married Chinese husbands. Among the 406 tested wives, one was found HIV positive.

"She married her husband four years ago," Zhong said. "He is not infected yet, so we told him to take preventive measures."


Prostitution is illegal in China and police have cracked down on the trade in recent years.

To curb the cross-border spread of HIV through sex channel, in addition to the police crackdown, the Pingxiang CDC launched a campaign to ensure the health of Vietnamese sex workers.

He Bo, the director, said that Pingxiang has cooperated with Lang Son of northern Vietnam in the effort. Health officials from China and Vietnam exchange information and technology frequently.

Sex workers receive regular health checks. At the same time, two staff members from the CDC teach sex workers how to protect themselves against HIV.

One of the staff members is Hoang Thu Mai, a Vietnamese woman. The other is Li Bing, a 27-year-old Vietnamese language major.

"Each week I spend two days visiting the Vietnamese sex workers,teaching them basic HIV/AIDS knowledge," she said.

However, she wants to communicate with the Vietnamese sex workers in a more tactical and effective way.

"It is hard to gain their trust," she said. "If I preach all the time, asking them to use condoms, they get bored."

Xu Wenqing, a project officer with the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) who has been working for AIDS programs for years, says the CDC's work is important and necessary.

"Sex is becoming the main channel for transmission of AIDS in China, through which the epidemic spreads from high-risk groups, like drug abusers and prostitutes, to the ordinary people," she said.

According to statistics released by China's Health Ministry, 370,000 people had HIV by the end of last year. The rate of heterosexual transmissions has grown from 40.3 percent in 2008 to 47.1 percent in 2009.

Xu Wenqing suggested that health authorities of China's border areas, like Pingxiang, cooperate more with neighboring countries in sharing information and providing health checks and medical treatment.

At Youyiguan, or Friendship Pass, many young Chinese and Vietnamese, can be seen dragging their suitcases as they walk across the border in twos and threes. Each day about 600 people cross the Pingxiang border.

Overlooking the customs gate is a huge advertising board. On it is a picture of the famous singer Peng Liyuan, China's anti-AIDS ambassador, and wife of vice president Xi Jinping. "AIDS is not curable but could be controlled and prevented," it said.

"To check the spread of AIDS across border through sex channels is difficult, but significant," Xu Wenqing said.




Editor:Zhang Dan |Source: Xinhua

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