December 17, 2008
Chinese health officials worry that migrant workers, a major force powering the country's rapidly growing economy, are highly vulnerable to HIV and could accelerate its spread into the general population. To date, HIV/AIDS has been mostly confined to high-risk groups including drug users, gay men, sex workers, and those infected through unsanitary blood-buying schemes during the 1990s.
"The epidemic is lowly prevalent in general, but it is highly prevalent among specific groups such as migrant workers and in some regions, particularly remote areas and the countryside," said Wang Weizhen, deputy director of HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment at the Ministry of Health.
Many factors lead to higher STD rates among male migrants than among the general population. The men are typically far from home, bored, and have money. They generally lack access to health care and information, and they seldom use condoms with sex workers.
"Other at-risk groups are rather small, but this one is huge," said Sun Xinhua, head of an AIDS office that reports to the State Council, China's cabinet.
In addition, disease-related stigma and discrimination dissuade many migrant workers from screening for the disease. Embarrassment in talking about sex makes it even more difficult for officials to reach a migrant population distrustful of authorities.
The Ministry of Health and the International Labor Organization hope a short film aimed at educating migrant workers about HIV/AIDS, "Hometown Fellows," will help remove these barriers. It features film star Wang Baoqiang, himself a former construction worker, who shares work and daily life with Zhang Xiaohu, who is ostracized because he has HIV.
Zhang is played by Wang Zhenting, who contracted HIV in 2002 and has experienced HIV stigma firsthand. "Some other workers had a lot of prejudice against us," Wang said. "But the government is working to raise awareness. Now, some people are OK with me, but some are still not."