- Gao encountered her first AIDS patient in 1996 and traced the woman’s deadly disease to a tainted blood transfusion.
- She began to investigate AIDS in Henan’s villages, recording medical histories and documenting them with photographs, uncovering a hidden epidemic.
- Having no materials to warn people about AIDS, Gao mounted a campaign on her own, publishing and distributing AIDS-related reports and brochures, and traveling to AIDS-impacted villages to treat and comfort patients and instruct their neighbors.
- The Board of Trustees of the RMAF recognizes “her fervent personal crusade to confront the AIDS crisis in China and to address it humanely.”
In China today, vast numbers of rural people have never heard the term AIDS. But AIDS is among them. They call it the “strange disease” and “nameless fever” and they know it is deadly. Well over a million of them are believed to be infected. In China, HIV/AIDS spreads much as it does elsewhere. But in parts of the country, as Dr. Gao Yaojie has shown, most HIV-infected persons are victims not of unprotected sex or needle sharing but of an unscrupulously careless commerce in human blood.
In the 1980s and 1990s, a lively business arose in China to meet the demand of hospitals and medical-products companies for blood plasma: destitute villagers were paid cash for blood. At local collection stations, technicians drew blood from donors, combined it with that of others to extract plasma, and then reinjected the donors with the now-mixed red blood cells—to strengthen them for the next sale. This profitable and reckless business was conducted by health and military officials until the Chinese government banned it in 1998. Afterwards, underground “bloodheads” moved from village to village to tap plasma for a still-flourishing market.
Dr. Gao, a specialist in ovarian gynecology, was already retired from Henan College of Traditional Chinese Medicine when she encountered her first AIDS patient in 1996. She soon diagnosed the forty-year-old woman’s deadly disease and traced it to a tainted blood transfusion. The blood trade was rampant in rural Henan. Gao discerned the connection and sounded the alarm.
Having no materials to warn people about AIDS and its risks, she wrote a small book herself and distributed it at railroad stations and clinics. She then began to investigate AIDS in Henan’s crowded villages, recording medical histories and documenting them with photographs. As she did so, she uncovered a hidden epidemic. In Wenlou Village, for example, 65 percent of the villagers were HIV-positive. “Everyone sells blood here,” the people told her. Gao eventually estimated that 20 percent of Henan Province’s population was HIV-positive.
Everywhere she turned, however, Gao faced ignorance about AIDS. She therefore mounted a campaign of her own. Marshalling funds from a few donors but relying mainly on meager personal resources, she published a stream of AIDS-related reports and brochures; she traveled to AIDS-impacted villages to treat and comfort patients and to instruct their neighbors; and, increasingly, she shared what she knew with reporters.
At first, officials in Henan ignored Dr. Gao’s eccentric crusade. But when newspapers began exposing Henan’s AIDS crisis to the country and the world, local officials reacted. They monitored her movements, tapped her phone, and opened her mail. They confiscated her photographs. They forbade her to speak to journalists. Meanwhile, the people themselves ejected her from clinics and factories and bars as she distributed AIDS materials. But Gao carried on fearlessly, and the tide began to turn.
The Chinese government has now begun to acknowledge the country’s AIDS crisis and, today, hundreds and thousands of Gao’s books are in open circulation. China has pledged to do better. But progress has been slow in Henan and Gao remains skeptical.
At seventy-six, Gao works from home and moves sprightly from one chore to the next. She is deeply concerned about China’s unwanted AIDS orphans, who suffer most from the disease’s stigma. She finds families for them and, in wary villages, holds them in her arms. Gao’s work is little more than “flipping spoonfuls of water onto a roaring fire,” she says. But she is motivated by the suffering of her AIDS patients. Each of their photographs tells a sad story, she says. And she remembers every one.
In electing Gao Yaojie to receive the 2003 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service, the board of trustees recognizes her fervent personal crusade to confront the AIDS crisis in China and to address it humanely.
(Read by Mr. Zhou Xingping, representing Dr. Gao.)
Your Excellency President of the Philippines, trustees of the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation, distinguished guests, fellow awardees, ladies and gentlemen.
First of all, I would like to thank the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation which has given me this award. It is such an honor for me. I don’t think I have done enough work for deserving this great award for Public Service. As a retired doctor in China, I only did what a doctor should do; I only did what an ordinary Chinese educated person should do for the country and the people.
I first met an AIDS patient in China in 1996 in a Henan hospital. She was a 40-year-old rural woman, found out to be HIV-positive only a few days before she died of AIDS. This made me think that in China, people including most doctors still have no knowledge about this deadly disease. The woman was just one of thousands who died of this disease, and most of them did not even know what disease killed them.
The woman was infected with HIV through a hospital blood transfusion. As I knew even before, since the early 90s, blood trade was rampant in hundreds of villages in Henan province. Around 2 million farmers in Henan province have sold their blood to make money from 1991 to 1996.
I was worried about the situation and what was going to happen, but I had no power, no money. So I started to write; I printed some materials on AIDS. I went to railway stations, public squares, and crowded streets, to offer them to people. The first year, I printed and distributed more than 500,000 copies. I also often went to the countryside where I have seen that in most of the AIDS villages, people were dying without care by the government.
After parents died of AIDS, their orphans have no food and no money to go to school. Most of the AIDS families, including the children, were looked down upon by other people within and outside their villages until most of the other villagers found out later that they, too, were infected with HIV. It was so miserable, as I can describe it, life in the villages was full of poverty, illness and corruption by local officials.
I will tell a story, so that you may understand why I still want to do whatever I can for AIDS victims in Henan province, in spite of so many difficulties I have to face. In 2000, I went to a village. As I passed a narrow lane, I heard a child shouting, “Mama, come down; mama, come down.” When I went into the house, I saw the child’s mother had hanged herself. The little child did not know his mother had already died; he was pulling her foot and kept calling his mother to come down from where she was. The mother found out she was HIV-positive not long before; her husband had previously died of AIDS and they have wasted all their money to fake doctors. This kind of story is everywhere in all the AIDS villages in Henan province.
I was lucky with my difficulties in working in the villages. When I was in trouble, journalists, both local and international, helped me. With their help, the Henan AIDS crisis was revealed to the public. With their stories, more and more people are being alerted on the AIDS problem in China.
My belief is this: to understand AIDS, patients should be treated nicely. To help them, even take care of them and not look down upon them is everyone’s duty for society.
For my work, I would like to take this opportunity to thank my husband, my sons and daughters who have given me so much support these past years. Without their support and sacrifice, my work could not be done.
Again, I would like to say that what I did is what I should do as a citizen. Also I hope everyone shares my belief. AIDS work is everyone’s responsibility.
Thank you very much.
Chinese gynecologist Gao Yaojie was six years into her retirement when one day in April 1996, she was summoned by her peers for an emergency consultation. A female patient known only by her surname “Ba” had been admitted to a military hospital in Zhengzhou City, capital of Henan Province, in central China. Her abdomen was swollen and she nursed a high fever that would not go down, in spite of sustained medication. Sixteen days after admission, her condition had still not been diagnosed. Baffled, hospital officials called in Dr. Gao, a seasoned obstetrician and gynecologist.
“She was very thin and had a steady fever of between thirty-nine and forty degrees,” Gao recalled. “Her oral cavity had begun to ulcerate. Her abdomen was distended. Dark purple-colored stripes had appeared on her skin.” Some doctors surmised that the woman might have some kind of cancer, but Gao suspected acquired immune deficiency syndrome, or AIDS. A human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) test soon confirmed her suspicion: Ms. Ba was HIV-positive and terminally ill. Ten days later, the housewife and mother of two died. She was only forty-two. She was the first AIDS patient Dr. Gao ever encountered.
That encounter changed the trajectory of the retired doctor’s life. In the subsequent years, Gao would emerge as an unassuming hero who, despite all odds, defied powerful local interests and government officials to blow the whistle on the spreading HIV/AIDS epidemic in China. With passion and compassion, she worked tirelessly to raise funds for AIDS victims, especially orphans, and to educate the public about the virulent disease that continues to plague hundreds of thousands of people around the country.
For Dr. Gao, Ms. Ba’s case raised the question: how did she contract the disease? At that time, the conventional wisdom, according to information from the Chinese government, was that the HIV/AIDS virus typically spread through intravenous drug use and promiscuous sexual contact. But the forty-two-year-old patient, an ordinary rural housewife, had no such history. Even more intriguing, Ba’s husband, children, and relatives all tested negative for HIV. If Ba had not contracted the virus from her husband, nor transmitted it to any members of her family, how had she become an HIV/AIDS carrier? Where and how did she contract the virus?
Gao could have simply gone back home to enjoy an easy life in retirement, but the diminutive doctor was not content to merely putter around in her cramped apartment. She thought she still had many patients to care for.
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