UN agency urges China to drop HIV spa ban

Campaigners say widespread stigmatisation in China of those living with HIV has complicated efforts to curb the spread of the virus. (AFP)

Campaigners say widespread stigmatisation in China of those living with HIV has complicated efforts to curb the spread of the virus. (AFP)

The proposed Chinese ministry of commerce ruling preventing HIV-positive citizens from visiting spas, hot springs and public bathhouses is the latest instance of enduring discrimination against HIV carriers in the world's most populous country.

China bans those with the virus from becoming civil servants and HIV-positive people face the possibility of losing their jobs if employers discover their status, while some have sought hospital treatment only to be turned away.

The draft regulation posted online by China's state council, or Cabinet, orders spas and similar establishments to display prominently signs prohibiting "people with sexually transmitted diseases, Aids and infectious skin diseases".

Hedia Belhadj, China coordinator for the United Nations Programme on HIV and Aids (UNAids), said on Monday that the organisation is concerned about the provision and called for it to be removed. There is no risk of transmission of HIV in a spa or bathhouse setting, she said.

"UNAids recommends that restrictions preventing people living with HIV from accessing bath houses, spas and other similar facilities be removed from the final draft of this policy," said Belhadj. She urged that "any other policies preventing people living with HIV from accessing public or private services also be revised".

UNAids estimates that there are 780 000 people living with HIV in China.

Chinese campaign groups blasted the proposed rule.

"The only value of this draft law is in discriminating against those with Aids," said Yu Fangqiang, director of the Nanjing-based anti-discrimination nongovernmental organisation Justice for All.

His organisation and five other domestic NGOs are seeking to collaborate on a response.
"This law must be changed. All the HIV NGOs know this new rule, and they want to fight it," Yu said.

China only lifted a long-standing ban on foreigners with HIV entering the country in 2010, although in recent years top officials have begun speaking more openly about HIV prevention and control. And the country has made strides in expanding access to free antiretroviral drugs for HIV-positive people.

But discrimination against those with HIV and Aids remains an issue at hospitals, workplaces and other establishments across the country.

In January, a draft regulation in southern Guangdong province would have banned people with HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases from becoming teachers. Officials dropped the provision in April after an outcry from rights groups.

Most attempts by HIV-positive people to sue over discrimination have failed. But, in the first judgment of its kind, earlier this year a plaintiff who had been denied a teaching job after it was revealed that he was HIV-positive was awarded 45 000 yuan (R73 000) from a county education bureau in eastern Jiangxi province. It marked a milestone that activists have cited as a cause for hope in future legal battles.

Campaign groups and international organisations say widespread stigmatisation of those with HIV in China has complicated efforts to curb its spread.

Addressing the "stigmatisation and discrimination against people living with HIV is essential in the national response", said Belhadj. – AFP

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