Cops in clash over condoms
A new national plan by the Ministry of Health to help prostitutes and drug addicts avoid HIV/AIDS is proving controversial because of the illegal nature of both activities.
While health workers are trying to teach these groups the importance of using condoms, law enforcement authorities are more interested in putting them in jail.
"Intervention among high-risk groups is absolutely crucial in the country's battle against HIV/AIDS," said Li Chaoliang, deputy director of the HIV/AIDS prevention and control office in southwestern China's Yunnan Province.
Under the ministry's plan, local health authorities are required to educate prostitutes and promote condom usage.
Victims of sexually transmitted diseases are to be given medical treatment and free condoms.
The new regulation also stipulates that information about HIV and AIDS should be disseminated in areas frequented by homosexual males and their partners.
Intravenous drug-users should also be encouraged to practice safe sex and use condoms.
China now has 840,000 HIV carriers, including 80,000 AIDS patients. The epidemic has spread throughout the country and is crossing into the general population from high-risk groups such as prostitutes, drug users, homosexuals and migrant workers.
But some critics say it is hypocritical to advocate care for prostitutes and drug users while public security authorities are cracking down on those activities.
"Public security departments require drug users to register themselves and encourage the public to report unregistered drug users," said Guo Yaqi, who has been doing voluntary AIDS prevention work for many years.
"But now health departments are going to provide condoms and education to them. How can the two government authorities cooperate with each other?" Guo asked.
He also questioned whether it is appropriate for health departments to be made responsible for reporting information on prostitutes and drug users to police.
"Intervention involving sensitive groups should be conducted by non-governmental organizations, as other countries do," Guo said. "If not, government departments should at least cooperate more in planning."
HIV carrier Meng Lin sees the plan as a "positive signal" of the government's growing attention to the spread of HIV/AIDS but wondered about its practicability.
"The approach will have no legal force unless the Health Ministry and the Public Security Ministry jointly issue a detailed operation plan to implement it," he said.
Problems have already arisen. Police in a southern city recently seized drug users during an intervention by health workers.
"It was an embarrassment for the law," Meng said.
"People accepting help ended up getting trapped by the police rather than getting the help they needed."
Yunnan's Li said interventions involving high-risk groups need to be supported by public security departments, balancing the needs of high-risk people and the government's efforts to fight crime.
"We must stress the importance of confidentiality and try our best to compile information about people for intervention use only," he said.
Officials with the Ministry of Public Security declined to comment on the Health Ministry's scheme.