A vending machine offering cheap HIV tests at a technical university in Sichuan province illustrates the newfound urgency that the Chinese government feels to curb the rapid rise of HIV infections among China’s young people.
A Weibo user posted a photo of the unusual vending machine found at Southwest Petroleum University featuring a kit costing 30 RMB ($4.75) — very inexpensive when compared to its prior market price of 268-298 RMB ($40-45), What’s on Weibo reports. The sale of these testing kits is part of a new program by China’s STD & HIV Prevention Association that targets local schools and colleges, where HIV infections are recently becoming more and more of a problem.
According to a 2015 report by UNAIDS, the number of people living with HIV/AIDS in China is over half a million, but still less than .037% of the total population. Despite low national prevalence, the amount of people with the disease continues to rise, with roughly 200,000 new cases reported between 2010 and 2014.
Among the groups disproportionately affected by the growing epidemic are young high school and college students, particularly men who have sex with men. The continued stigma against homosexuality and the lack of quality sex education are contributing to more young Chinese having unprotected sex, making intercourse the most common form of infection. The results can be alarming, over a five-year period colleges in the city of Nanchang saw infections rise by 43% annually with over 80% of new cases resulting from same-sex encounters.
Life for people with HIV in China is far from easy. Many grapple with feelings of shame about their condition and fear of it becoming public knowledge due to widespread paranoia surrounding the disease. In a survey of 2,000 Chinese living with HIV, more than half of respondents feared being insulted or threatened about their condition, while a quarter were concerned about their personal safety and employer discrimination.These anxieties are far from unfounded, in 2014 villagers from Nanchong in Sichuan province tried to expel an 8-year-old child via petition after they discovered he was HIV positive. This kind of discrimination led to the creation of the only school in China that’s just for kids with HIV.
Sichuan’s vending machine experiment is one of several initiatives by both activists and government officials to raise awareness and combat the stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS in China. On September 24th, dozens of demonstrators marched across a section of the Great Wall outside of Tianjin to participate in China’s 5th annual AIDS Walk.
HIV advocacy is not solely limited to the provincial and grassroots level. During this year’s G20 summit in Hangzhou, Chinese First Lady Peng Liyuan attended a campus event at Zhejiang University promoting the prevention of HIV/AIDS, calling on other countries to help search for a cure and curb the spread of the disease. Peng Liyuan also serves as a World Health Association ambassador for tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS as well as an anti-HIV/AIDS publicist for China’s National Health and Family Planning Commission.
As the Communist Party’s Sixth Plenum kicks off in Beijing, the spread of HIV continues to be a serious concern for government members and ordinary citizens alike. As more people are put at risk, impartiality towards social taboos and urgent implementation should be key government objectives when tackling this potent public health problem.
More vending machines couldn’t hurt as well.
By Avery Davenport
[Images via Beijing News / China Youth Daily / Washington Blade]