Disease Engulfs China

Feb 24, 2007

While China's economy has been rapidly expanding, the country's social welfare is declining fast. Two important factors contributing to this downfall are the noticeable spread of disease among Chinese people, combined with a neglect of public health concerns.

The latest issue of the British medical journal The Lancet features a report focusing on the spread of syphilis throughout China. A joint effort between Professor Myron Cohen, director of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill Center for Infectious Diseases, and the China National AIDS/STD Prevention and Control Center, the report explored the epidemic situation of sexually transmitted diseases among Chinese people from 1989 to 2005. Results revealed that in 1993 the reported total rate of cases of syphilis in China was 0.2 cases per 100,000 people, but by 2005 this number jumped to 5.7 cases. Chinese virology experts suggest that these figures may even be considerably underestimated.

Furthermore, from 1991 to 2005 incidence of congenital syphilis had grown at a very rapid rate with an average yearly increase of 71.9 percent, and more syphilis cases were found in urban areas such as Shanghai, Beijing, Guangdong, Hainan and Zhejiang. Professor Cohen concludes that the actual situation is quite possibly much worse than his findings indicate.

But it isn't just the spread of syphilis that is worrisome. A variety of diseases are seeing an alarming increase throughout China in recent years. The following health statistics come directly from China's Ministry of Health and other institutional agencies.

Recent figures find that approximately 840,000 people are infected with HIV in China. According to the United Nation agencies within the country, the number of HIV infected individuals is expected to rise to 10 million by 2010 unless aggressive prevention measures are soon implemented.

China ranks second in the world in TB infections, with 80 percent of these cases coming from rural areas of China. Over 400 million people have been infected with the TB bacillus, five million TB patients, and two million infectious lung TB patients. The number of annual TB deaths reach up to 150,000.

In China, 30 million persons are chronically infected with Hepatitis B and another 120 million are found to be carriers for the virus.

Over the past five years, the number of Chinese with chronic bilharziasis—a deadly parasitic flatworm—have steadily remained above 800,000. The infection rate of people and livestock with this disease can be as high as 68 percent in some areas.

In addition, 200 million individuals throughout China suffer from occupational diseases—perhaps not a surprising statistic in a country where more than 1,600 businesses are found to be involved in producing poisonous products. Be it coal, chemical, metallurgical, power, building materials, electronics, lighting industry and other areas with high-risk for occupational disease, a whopping 134,244 workers are found to have been suffering from occupational ailments. And this is based only on data collected from the 54 percent of individuals employed in these hazardous fields who had participated in a physical examination.

According to the China Institute of Environmental Sciences, among the country's 1.3 billion people, more than 400,000 die from air pollution related diseases every year.

The spread of these diseases is not merely a case of developmental strategy, but because public health remains a low priority throughout the country. In many areas, work places that expose employees to poisonous and harmful substances were built primarily to foster economic development, not with concern for labor protection. These enterprises are often fittingly referred to as the country's "Blood GDP." China's large sex industry—said to have as much as six million workers—is not the only factor to blame on the country's rampant increase of AIDS. Local government has also played a significant role in the spread of the disease. One prime example has been the "plasma economy" promoted in Henan Province. This debacle saw large numbers of rural Chinese selling their blood for profit but in less than sanitary conditions. The result was a contaminated blood supply that spread through transfusions throughout the country.

High incidents of schistosomiasis (parasites found primarily in developing countries) is a prime example of such diseases that stem from a government that puts little interest into matters of public health. In some parts of China's Hunan province, the system in place for controlling schistosomiasis had collapsed as far back as the mid-80s, prompting the parasite to re-emerge. Those who die due to diseases related to air pollution fall victim to the severe damage that China's environmental health has endured. Some mention that the loss of social justice is the price that China's poor has had to pay for the country's economic development, but this development has also cost the health and well-being of all its citizens.

As the Chinese communist regime continues to put a remarkably low priority on public health, diseases flourish throughout the country. According to data published by the WHO, nearly half of the Chinese population cannot afford their medical expenses. Chinese researchers also point that the percentage of public health expenditure in the GDP has seen a consistent decrease since 1990. WHO statistics find[s] that China's total health expenditure is strongly moving in the direction of privatization, while a severe lack of governmental aid has put the country's public health system in crisis. It wasn't until the spread of SARS in 2003 that Chinese people began to realize just how frail their public anti-epidemic system truly was.

Just how healthy is the current Chinese population? One of the main reasons for the decline of the ancient Babylon Kingdom was the spread of syphilis. Due to the illness, they remained unable to draft enough military strength to resist an intruding foreign enemy. Recently China has been discussing the rise of great nations. But if one considers China's current social situation, perhaps the decline of great nations is a more relevant topic. For a nation's populace deteriorating quickly in both physical and mental health, one must question what denotes a true aspiration toward greatness.

Originally published by Huaxia Electronic Newspaper volume 179