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Bathed in discrimination?

Global Times (2013-10-25 P06)
By Xinhua – Global Times
Customers bathe at a bathhouse in Fuzhou, Fujian Province, on December 20, 2010. Photo: CFP

Customers bathe at a bathhouse in Fuzhou, Fujian Province, on December 20, 2010. Photo: CFP

A fresh debate on the rights of people living with HIV has erupted after China announced a proposed regulation aimed at keeping them out of public bathhouses.

The rule, drafted by the Ministry of Commerce (MOC), requires public bathing places, including bathhouses, spas and foot massage centers, to put up signs barring "people with sexually transmitted diseases, AIDS and infectious skin diseases" in prominent positions.

Facilities that don't comply and fail to make changes could be fined up to 30,000 yuan ($4,911), it said.

The proposal was posted online by the MOC on October 11 for a month-long period of public consultation.

The restriction rule has garnered support from many members of the public while exasperating HIV carriers and advocacy groups.

Infection fears

Mountains of research has indicated that the spread of HIV via water in public baths is virtually impossible, according to Zhang Beichuan, a prominent Chinese AIDS expert.

"There's no need to talk about the probability of infection in this case, as transmission of the virus requires an open wound's exposure to HIV-infected blood," Zhang said.

Urine and sweat, the bodily fluids one might come into contact with in public bathhouses, do not contain HIV, said Wu Zunyou, director of the HIV/AIDS division of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

"Only knowledge can dispel fears. The public should be given more opportunities and channels to learn about the disease," said a worker surnamed Kong with Chi Heng Foundation, a Hong Kong-based non-governmental organization dedicated to AIDS relief and anti-discrimination.

Despite advice from experts, the public remain unconvinced.

An online poll that attracted more than 23,000 respondents showed nearly 73 percent of the participants applauded the proposal "for the sake of public safety and health."

Only 21 percent of the surveyed Net users opposed the ban, deeming it discriminatory and believing that the HIV virus is unlikely to spread under normal conditions in a public bathhouse, according to the poll conducted by the popular web portal Sina.

"I know one can't easily get infected, but it's definitely reasonable to take measures to reduce - or even better - completely avoid the risks," said a government employee surnamed Liu in Southwest China's Chongqing.

A patron of the city's foot massage shops, Liu added that the ban would also shield workers in establishments from the incurable virus.

The ban would be removed if "it is proven that allowing HIV carriers to access public bathhouses will not cause transmission of the virus," an MOC official behind the draft regulation was quoted as saying by The Beijing News.

Discrimination reinforced

Zhang said that the rule is ridiculous because it will only exacerbate deep-rooted bias against and fear of the HIV-infected in China, as well as lead to gross misunderstandings of the disease among the public.

"Can we really count on the government to set up exclusive bathhouses for the infected?" he said.

Zhang's sentiment was backed by Xia Xueluan, a professor of sociology at Peking University, who said that the ban would stigmatize them.

"The 'No Entry' signs are like boldfaced words exclaiming 'They are different from us!'" Xia said. "That would be unacceptable even if the drafters' motivation was to safeguard public health."

The rule, if adopted, would be a huge headache for bathhouse operators, who complained that the rule is "clearly impracticable."

"We can't inquire about whether a customer has acquired HIV. That's private. By the way, we have never heard of a single case of our customers getting infections here," said a manager at a century-old bathhouse in the Xicheng district of Beijing.

If the government insists on imposing the ban, it should come out with detailed provisions that are easy for business owners to follow, said the manager. "For example, will consumers be obliged to show us their health certificates?"

Shen Danyang, a spokesman from the MOC, responded on October 17 to public doubts by saying that the ministry welcomes different opinions and suggestions, and the draft will be improved later after the public consultation.

An HIV-positive man who declined to reveal his name said he does not care about the warning signs. He warned of possible revenge by "rebellious HIV carriers" who might maliciously spread the virus in establishments the rule attempts to exclude them from.

However, some health professionals believe the regulation might help expand their HIV prevention and treatment efforts to some hidden bathing venues, especially gay bathhouses and settings providing sexual services.

"We are fully aware of HIV transmission through unprotected sexual contact in these places, but are not legally entitled to conduct on-site testing," said a veteran government health worker in Chongqing.

"If the rule gets passed, I would say it's an opportunity for us to break the deadlock," said the health worker, who asked not to be named.

His view was partly echoed by Wu Zunyou, who said the ban might serve as a warning for men who have sex with men and are therefore at high risk of HIV infection.

A 2012 figure released by the former Ministry of Health showed China had reported more than 490,000 cases of HIV infection and AIDS.

Even before bathhouses became a flash point in the latest debate, the struggles of HIV-infected people in education, employment and healthcare in China had frequently made headlines and ignited controversy in recent years.

In July, HIV-plagued Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region in South China began to implement real-name registration for HIV testing, eliciting strong criticism from experts and HIV carriers despite a promise by officials to protect privacy.

"The government is supposed to fully consult medical experts and ethicists before making compulsory rules concerning HIV, and that's the point," said Zhang Beichuan.

Xinhua - Global Times

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