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December 4, 2011

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Sex workers spread HIV over Vietnam border

LIKE millions of other rural folk in China, the farmer never dreamed he could marry a foreign woman. Neither did he know the risk.

"I have been living with HIV for several years," said the 52-year-old in Pingxiang, a city in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region that borders Vietnam.

The HIV sufferer is too afraid to use his real name, instead he uses the pseudonym Huang Haitong. He was born in Hunan. Huang went to Guangxi in 1998, and there he opened a small hotel. His wife, from Vietnam, was once a sex worker.

"She had a husband," Huang said. After Nguyen Thi Hoa, also not her real name, gave birth to a boy, her husband died.

Cross-border marriage is common in Guangxi. Huang married Nguyen in 2004. Two years later, she suffered recurring herpes outbreaks on her face. The couple spent a lot of money but the outbreaks didn't stop. Finally a doctor said take a HIV test.

When telling the story, Huang's voice was low and calm. But he said on hearing the news, he felt his world had collapsed.

"I had never sold blood, nor was I addicted to drugs," he said. Huang suspected that he got the virus from his wife, but added that it was not important now to find out which one of them had infected the other.

In many parts of China, HIV/AIDS still has a huge stigma. Knowing their condition, Huang's landlord asked the couple to leave. Over a three year period, they moved four or five times and Huang had to close his hotel.

Nguyen gave birth to a girl in 2009. Now the family of four lives in a 30-square-meter rented apartment in downtown Pingxiang, sleeping in one bed. They have an electrical fan to cool them during the torridly hot summer days, but they have no television.

Huang is not a local so he can't get a low-income subsidy from the government. Nguyen, working as a waitress in a hotel, supports the family with her salary of 900 yuan (US$141) a month.

Pingxiang has a population of 110,000 and is dubbed the "southern gate of China." It is known as an important place of trade on the China-Vietnam border.

Pingxiang had 638 people who were HIV positive in September.

Guangxi, with 50 million people and more than 60,000 HIV infections by the end of last year, was ranked second among all autonomous regions, municipalities and provinces.

Sex has become the top transmission channel in recent years, said He Bo, director of local disease control and prevention center (CDC) in Pingxiang. He noted that among the newly infected people in 2011, three-fourths were heterosexuals.

According to a report on the official website of UNAIDS, Vietnam, with its population of 84 million, estimated it had 293,000 people living with HIV in 2007. "Of all reported HIV cases, 78.9 percent are 20-39 years old," according to the report. Border areas had especially high infection rates.

Vietnamese sex workers are generally more likely to carry HIV than Chinese sex workers, He said.

"Among every 100 Vietnamese sex workers two or three are infected, whereas the infection rate of Chinese sex workers is around 1 percent."

To curb the cross-border spread of HIV, the Pingxiang CDC launched a campaign to ensure the health of Vietnamese sex workers.


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