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Xinhua Insight: Police seek breakthrough as HIV immunizes carriers from penalties

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

by Xinhua writers Wang Jiaquan, Li Huaiyan

XISHUANGBANNA, Yunnan, Nov. 29 (Xinhua) -- Even with pus running down his arms and legs, Liao Zhong still craved whatever drugs he could get his hands on.

The HIV-sufferer would sit in his armchair in his courtyard waiting for his fixer to arrive. Liao, 44, would sell on some of the drugs to afford his own habit. He had a video camera to monitor the outside of his home to make sure the police were not around during his deals.

Liao's wife and two sons tried to help. But could not.

Even if the police detained him, where would they put a HIV carrier, they would ask themselves. The country's law prohibits the detention of offenders with infectious diseases.

The dilemma ended after a rehabilitation center for drug users with HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases, such as tuberculosis, was set up in August in Menghai County in Xishuangbanna, southwest China's Yunnan Province.

Liao was the center's first attendee.

Initially, he resisted treatment and tried to commit suicide.

Three months on, and ahead of World AIDS Day on Dec. 1, nobody knows if the treatment will rid Liao of his addiction. But the festers on his arms and legs have disappeared, leaving only scars on his dark skin.

Liao started taking drugs in 1994 after he was on a building site in Myanmar. He was given "something special" to ease the pain. He was told he had HIV after he was sent to a labor camp in Yuxi City in Yunnan in 2001 for compulsory rehabilitation.

Drugs and AIDS haunt Yunnan.

Drugs taken intravenously used to be a major cause of HIV infections in the province, which borders the notorious Golden Triangle of narcotics in southeast Asia.

Even today, when drugs such as "ice" do not require needles, many addicts are still vulnerable to the virus, usually through unprotected sex, according to Gui Dandan, director of Menghai's public health bureau.

Drug trafficking is a major problem as there are many ways in and out of Myanmar from Menghai. This poses a greater challenge for AIDS prevention, Gui says.

After Liao left the labor camp in 2003, he was known as a troublemaker in the eyes of his fellow villagers, says Tan Jieming, police chief of Menghai. "They think a drug user and dealer is a threat to their children."

Liao was also a bully in his village. He would steal from vendors, be it vegetables or meat, believing the police could do nothing about a HIV or AIDS patient, says Tan.

Liao used to make police feel incompetent. Villagers would feel unsafe with him around, Tan says.

The dilemma is not in Xishuangbanna alone.

Two years ago, a drug trafficker was caught by police in Dongguan, south China's Guangdong Province, but was released at the scene because he had festered hands. Police suspected he had AIDS.

With nearly 500,000 HIV/AIDS cases across the country at the end of October 2012, increasing reports of crimes by carriers have led to rising concerns among the public.

No law protects violators and crimes, but these groups of offenders are also patients, and their double identities are where the dilemma lies, says Lu Lin, director of the Yunnan Provincial Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

A convicted HIV carrier is usually allowed, in accordance with related laws, to serve his term outside prison, as most jails do not have separate facilities for them. Mixed confinement means a threat to non-infected prisoners, says Lu, who was once a prison guard.

As treatment means an extra burden, few prisons accept HIV/AIDS carriers without extra governmental investment, says Lu.

Pei Yan, an associate professor with the People's Public Security University of China based in Beijing, says convicted HIV/AIDS carriers should not be granted terms outside prison if they pose potential threats to both public security and health.

Lan Yonggang, deputy police chief in Mengla, another county under Xishuangbanna, suggests that the ethnic autonomous prefecture, which enjoys independent legislative power, can resolve the dilemma through legislation. However, he admits it might be a long and complicated process.

He says the Menghai care center for drug rehabilitation is a model that can solve the problem.

The center was a brainchild of the local police. But to avoid a clash with current legal procedures, it was initiated by the civil affairs bureau with help from AIDS prevention groups and other authorities. It is seen as a way to deal with groups of people who many believe enjoy an amnesty.

Police chief Tan said the program is neither a detention house, nor a clinical service. It is a care center, which integrates efforts from police, public health and civil affairs authorities.

The center was set up with government investment of 1.5 million yuan. It has 19 workers, including doctors and nurses, while police monitor its security. Thirty-four people are receiving treatment at the center. Tan says it can accommodate 80 at most.

Xu Heping, director of the Yunnan Provincial AIDS Prevention Bureau, says Menghai is a model for dealing with this special challenge. It is worth duplicating, but currently needs both funding and policy support from the government.

Liao Zhong seems satisfied at the center. His imagination still flies far and high. "I hope I can go to Tibet or Xinjiang after I totally recover. They are good places."

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/xinhua-news-agency/131129/xinhua-insight-police-seek-breakthrough-hiv-immunizes-carrie