Hubei province is estimated to have around 45,000 HIV/AIDS sufferers, the majority of whom contracted HIV after selling blood to illegal blood-banks several years ago.
Brussels - Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) will today (May 28) receive the first patients into its new HIV/AIDS treatment clinic in Xiangfan city in the Chinese province of Hubei.
The clinic is one of the first in the country to provide treatment free of charge to people infected with HIV, and offers hope to poor people who have previously been unable to afford expensive charges for AIDS drugs. The project is being run jointly with the Xiangfan Centre for Disease Control and will have the capacity to offer treatment for up to 500 people.
"We are extremely excited about the launch of this project since it marks a breakthrough for HIV/AIDS treatment in a country with an escalating HIV/AIDS problem," said Luc Van Leemput, Head of the MSF project in Xiangfan. "Although many Chinese hospitals have the capacity to provide treatment to people living with HIV/AIDS, the huge cost of the drugs means that most sufferers have no hope of ever being able to afford them. As in many other countries, it is a case of 'your money or your life'.
"The opening of this free clinic illustrates the willingness of Chinese authorities to tackle a health issue that is still largely taboo in Chinese society."
Hubei province is estimated to have around 45,000 HIV/AIDS sufferers, the majority of whom contracted HIV after selling blood to illegal blood-banks several years ago. The MSF clinic will initially focus on providing medical care to HIV patients suffering from "opportunistic infections" – illnesses such as tuberculosis and pneumonia that frequently attack before the full onset of AIDS.
"HIV destroys the cells of the immune system" explains Anita Wang, a doctor with the MSF team. "That means that HIV-positive individuals are especially susceptible to diseases such as tuberculosis. Although local hospital staff are aware of the problem of HIV/TB co-infection, there is currently no system in place for diagnosing and treating patients, partly because drugs to treat these diseases have previously been unaffordable for most HIV-positive people in the region."
The MSF clinic will provide HIV-positive patients with drugs such as cotrimoxazole which reduce the risk of them contracting opportunistic infections, as well as free treatment for those already suffering from these illnesses.
After the initial start up period of six to nine months, MSF will also start to provide Anti-retroviral ("ARV") drug therapy to selected patients in the Xiangfan region. ARV therapy boosts the immune system and has the potential to dramatically improve and prolong the lives of some HIV/AIDS sufferers. The clinic has the potential to supply ARV treatment to up to 500 patients.
Because HIV/AIDS patients tend to be heavily stigmatised by their local communities, most choose to keep their status secret from all but their close family in order to avoid discrimination. Part of the MSF programme will focus on increasing understanding about HIV/AIDS amongst patients and their families and organising mutual support groups.
"People infected with HIV are scared that they will be victimized," reports Van Leemput. "Even their non-infected family members suffer from severe stigmatisation. Some patients prefer to seek health care far away from their village in order to keep their status secret. Many of the HIV-positive people who MSF have met have asked specifically for support in addressing the social stigmatisation problem."
A long term aim of the project is therefore to increase the understanding of the wider community about what AIDS is and how HIV is contracted. Awareness and education projects will be organised in collaboration with the health authorities to try and reduce the problem of social stigmatisation and to encourage voluntary HIV testing, especially amongst pregnant women.