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Gao to the rescue: China didn't want her to leave, but AIDS activist Gao Yaojie came to the U.S. to accept a well-deserved award.

Chinese AIDS activist Gao Yaojie was under house arrest for 20 days before being allowed to travel to Washington, D.C., in March to accept a Human Rights Award from the U.S. women's group Vital Voices Global Partnership. But it was Beijing's failure to fund her efforts to fight AIDS in rural China that drew her strongest criticism.

"Not a dime!" said the frail-looking woman with a deeply lined face, thick glasses, and feet tiny from having been bound in the Chinese tradition that was still fashionable during her youth. But Gao is anything but frail. For more than a decade the retired gynecologist has been one of the most outspoken voices against the spread of HIV and AIDS in China.

That outspokenness has cost her. In efforts to stanch further embarrassment over her exposure of China's rural AIDS epidemic, the national government had twice previously barred Gao from receiving humanitarian awards overseas. Officials this time bowed to international pressure, including a letter sent by Sen. Hillary Redham Clinton.

"I'm an 80-year-old woman and I fear nothing now," said Gao, who has survived war, famine, and political repression. "What concerns me the most now is my family's safety. I am responsible for everything I say and do," she told The Advocate.

In 1996, Gao was poised to retire. Then she diagnosed her first AIDS patient, a 42-year-old woman in Henan, infected by a blood transfusion she had received a year before. Further investigation exposed a government-endorsed practice of buying blood from the poor. Unregulated operators olden used dirty needles and replenished plasma donors' blood from a pooled supply contaminated with HIV. "It is the biggest manmade HIV disaster we've seen anywhere," said physician Chris Beyrer, an AIDS specialist with Johns Hopkins University--and one the Chinese government tried desperately to cover up.

But Gao intervened, distributing medicine, lobbying to compensate people with AIDS, and housing patients. At one point she supported nearly 165 orphans.

According to the China AIDS Survey, the government estimates that 1 million people in China are living with HIV (the United Nations believes the figure is between 1.5 million and 2 million), and the Joint United Nations Programme on AIDS projects 10 million to 15 million HIV cases in the country by 2010.

While injection drug use is China's major culprit, 5.1% of new infections in 2006 were attributed to blood sales and transfusions. Sexual transmission is a less significant factor than in the West, and Gao doesn't like to talk about HIV and gay male sex. When asked about infection rates among gays, Gao sidestepped, insisting that blood-selling schemes were the real problem. When pressed for an opinion on how the "gay plague" image in the United States has impeded anti-AIDS efforts, she refused to comment.

Said Gao later: "Everyone has the responsibility to help their own people."
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Author:Cook, Gretchen
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Date:Apr 24, 2007
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