Xinhua Insight: Working around PLWHA in rehab

By Xinhua writers Lyu Qiuping, Xiong Lin and Lin Miaomiao

BEIJING, Nov. 30 (Xinhua) -- Whenever police officer Pan Lin arrives home from work, his wife tells him to take off his uniform and wash his hands before he hugs his two kids. She often asks him whether he has any open wounds.

Pan, 36, works at Likang Education and Correction Institute in Daxing District, Beijing, where drug addicts undergo compulsory rehab and prisoners serving prison terms of less than a year are held. Pan manages the team in charge of all the institute's HIV/AIDS patients.

Likang receives around 200 HIV-positive patients a year, it currently has 50 in-patients.

Thursday is World AIDS Day. As of 2015, China had 577,000 people living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA), just over 27 percent were infected as a result of unsafe same-sex intercourse. In 2005, the percentage was only 0.3 percent.

In China there is a three-strike rule -- on the third time a drug addict is caught taking drugs they must undergo a two-year compulsory rehab sentence. Anyone arrested on drug-related charges must be tested for HIV/AIDS, those who test positive will be transferred to special organizations, like Likang, for custody and treatment.

According to Pan, the biggest challenge for his team of 17 officers is not infection, but their own fears.

Pan said at first he was too scared to touch the patients and would hesitate before any tactile interaction.

"I thought about my wife and kids before I touched them at the beginning," he recalled. "But now I am actually OK."

RISKS FOR OCCUPATIONAL EXPOSURE

Dai Jingping, director of the institute's medicine department, says the virus is mainly passed person-to-person through unprotected sex, contaminated blood transfusions, intravenous drugs and mother-to-child infection during pregnancy, delivery or breastfeeding.

"Police and doctors are safe from infection as long as they have no open wounds," she reassured.

However, this does not mean there are no risks of infection.

Surgeon Zhang Runsheng insists on a small surgery team when the patient is a PLWHA. Surgery tools, such as scissors and knives, are not allowed to be directly handed to doctors or nurses during surgery.

"A tiny cut or a small amount of infected bodily fluid, these are our occupational hazards," he says.

Chief nurse Cao Yanping remembers an incident involving one of her colleagues.

"After administering an injection, the cover of the syringe broke and she got pricked by the needle," she recalled.

After a course of anti-virus medicine she was given the all clear, but it was a sharp reminder of the gravity of working with PLWHA.

"That time it happened to be her. It may be me next time," she says.

CHALLENGED BY DESPAIR

Many of the residents at the institute, according to Pan, did not realize they were infected before they were tested prior to admission to the center, and many struggle to come to terms with the news. Their mental health issues mean that they are often difficult to manage, and many attempt to harm or kill themselves.

Zhou Chuanlong, 54, deputy leader of the police team, says many residents "act out" and refuse to engage in activities, such as morning exercise.

"They say 'how can you be so mean to me. I'm dying,'" Zhou says. "I've also heard someone threaten to my colleague by saying 'I'll infect you -- then you will understand my pain'."

Having worked as a police officer for 30 years, Zhou understands that patients want to be dealt with without fear and discrimination.

"AIDS is nothing to be afraid of if you know enough about the disease," he says. "They are just human beings who need care."

Each institute resident has a designated police officer, doctor and nurse, and they attend counselling, rehabilitation sessions and other activities to improve their mental and physical wellbeing, relieve their stress and regain confidence.

Wang Sheng (pseudonym) says he has been treated well and the staff endeavor to meet any reasonable demands. "They bought plants for us to decorate our cells and allowed our family to bring us musical instruments," he says.

Wang, 31, used to work in a night club in Beijing. In early 2014, he started taking crystal meth and exploring his homosexual urges. Over the following six months, he arranged to meet strangers through gay hook-up apps, such as Blued and Zank, to take drugs and have sex. In November 2014, the second time he was arrested, he tested positive for HIV.

Zhang Jianmin, president of Likang institute, said the prevalence of same-sex intercourse transmission can be linked to popularity of drugs such as crystal meth.

According to him, crystal meth costs a fraction of the price of heroin, making it more accessible, and leading to more addictions. Of those people sent to compulsory rehab, 80 percent use drugs such as crystal meth.

"Many use these drugs as an erotic enhancer," said president Zhang, adding that protection is often over looked in situations like this. Among the institute's residents, 60 percent were infected as a result of same-sex intercourse, he said.

Wang was married with two daughters. He led a comfortable life, and earned 20,000 yuan (2,900 U.S. dollars) to 30,000 yuan a month by renting out a food stand.

At the height of his drug addiction, however, he spent almost all his 180,000 yuan in savings. His family still do not know that he is living with HIV/AIDS or that he is gay.

Wang will not be discharged for another two months but he is already thinking about how to tell his wife. "The doctors say my family won't be infected if they are properly protected. I don't want a divorce," he says.

(Xinhua reporters Jia Na and Mao Weihao contributed to the story)

[ Editor: 刘家铭 ]
 

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