BEIJING – A retired Chinese physician who publicized the dangers of AIDS said Thursday that health officials have blocked her from traveling to the United States to accept an award for her work.
Dr. Gao Yaojie, 74, said health officials accused her of helping "anti-China forces" when she publicized the spread of AIDS among poor farmers in central China, blamed on an unsanitary blood-buying industry.
Gao was to accept the Jonathan Mann Award from the Global Health Council at a ceremony Thursday in Washington, D.C., attended by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
The retired gynecologist said officials at her former hospital in the central city of Zhengzhou in Henan province refused to approve her passport application, a step required for government employees.
"They are afraid they'll lose their jobs if I publicize the situation of AIDS in China," Gao said by telephone from Zhengzhou.
Henan Health Bureau officials refused to comment. A spokesman for the Foreign Affairs Office said that because Gao's trip wasn't official, the provincial government wasn't involved.
Blood-buying in Henan in the mid-1990s is believed to have infected thousands of people with the AIDS virus. Operators often used dirty needles, and people selling plasma — the liquid in blood — received replenishment from a pooled blood supply.
Three villagers from Henan who contracted AIDS after selling their blood came to Beijing this week to publicize the epidemic. They asked not to be identified for fear of inviting government anger.
One, a middle-aged woman, said she began selling blood in the 1980s, though she didn't realize she had contracted AIDS until after their village clinic stopped buying in 1996. She said the clinic paid her $5 each time she sold blood.
"We sold blood to pay the local taxes, and also to support our kids through school and make a living," she said. "If they had told us that it could cause AIDS, nobody would ever sell their blood."
After blood-buying stopped, the villagers said at least one clinic official was punished with a $24,000 fine. None of the sick have been compensated, they said.
"My wife is dead. And I have three children to raise. Nobody cares about us," said another villager, a middle-aged man.
Much of the blood-buying in China took place in Henan, said Mo Lixia, an official at the State Family Planning Commission in Beijing. Henan is a densely populated rural province about 400 miles south of Beijing.
China has since outlawed blood sales, but officials are accused of trying to conceal the extent of AIDS infection. China officially reports 20,000 people with the virus or full-blown AIDS, but state media acknowledge that experts put the true number at more than 600,000.
Gao said hospital administrators criticized her for talking to the The New York Times last year, and called the Global Health Council an "anti-China force."
In a statement announcing the award, the Global Health Council called Gao an "outspoken crusader for the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of poor farmers with HIV in China."
Gao said health officials have retracted their criticism of her for talking to a foreign reporter but still refuse to let her go to Washington collect the award.
"I'm 74 years old. I don't have much energy to argue with them," she said.
Dr. Wan Hanhai, a Chinese AIDS activist who lives in Los Angeles, will accept Gao's award, the Global Health Council said. The award is given annually in memory of Dr. Jonathan Mann, an epidemiologist who worked in Africa. Mann died in the 1998 crash of Swissair Flight 111 off the coast of Nova Scotia.