Sunday, Jun 25, 2017, 6:29 PM CST – China

Society

AIDS Project

The Pwer of Prevention

One social organization is working to empower Chinese youth with knowledge and skills to help protect themselves from HIV/AIDS

Students attend a lecture on AIDS prevention at Yunting Experimental Primary School, Jiangsu Province, September 28, 2014

APEPCY founder Zhang Yinjun

The APEPCY house at Yunting Experimental Primary School, Jiangsu Province

Zhang Yinjun usually sleeps on her office sofa after working overtime. The Beijing apartment that is her office was once Zhang’s home, but now serves as the headquarters of the AIDS Prevention Education Project for Chinese Youth (APEPCY), a non-profit organization dedicated to the prevention and control of the spread of HIV and AIDS among Chinese teenagers.

Founded in 2006, APEPCY now has more than 10 staff members, and offers sex education and HIV/AIDS prevention seminars through the establishment of what it calls “APEPCY houses” to educate children from kindergarten to college. With new infections on the rise among China’s youth, APEPCY is finding its services in high demand.

Last December saw the organization preparing for both its 10th anniversary and its second national seminar on HIV/AIDS prevention among teenagers. More than 300 people attended the event, twice the number recorded in 2014. Government officials, academics and representatives from multiple NGOs were all present.

“It is delightful to see that our work has yielded some promising outcomes,” founder Zhang told NewsChina. For her, growing attendance of APEPCY seminars, particularly by government officials, demonstrated that HIV/AIDS prevention among China’s youth is receiving more attention from the public and in the media.

Neglect

Official statistics suggest that as of last October, there were 575,000 people living with HIV in China, and hospitals had recorded a total of 177,000 deaths from AIDS complications. 15 provinces are home to more than 10,000 AIDS patients, while HIV prevalence among those aged 15 to 24 has hit 1.6 percent of the total number of registered cases, with 2,552 young people living with HIV in 2014, up from 482 in 2008, a more than fivefold increase.

China has roughly 300 million young citizens in full-time education, over 20 million of whom reach sexual maturity each year. While HIV in China was traditionally seen as a disease primarily affecting intravenous drug users, today more than 90 percent of new infections are transmitted sexually, making sex education an essential public health priority in a conservative country that only offers minimal, and often incomplete, sex and sexual health information to its school-age population.

Blood-to-blood, sexual and mother-to-child transmission are the principal transmission vectors for HIV. However, while AIDS awareness campaigns have been a feature of public health education in China since the 1990s, sex and sexuality remains taboo, with educators skimming over sex education and prioritizing exams, grades and enrollment rates.

APEPCY houses give financial aid to partner schools, provide students with relevant reading materials, encourage interaction between teachers and students, arrange parenting classes and organize other community activities with the goal of raising awareness of HIV and AIDS. The organization also campaigns for public funds to help treat AIDS orphans.

Zhang told our reporter that at least 50,000 yuan (US$7,680) is needed to set up an APEPCY house, including the purchase of teaching equipment, textbooks and other reading materials. Most challenging, she continued, is “securing a place at schools” to give sexual health lectures and promote sex education.

Li Bian, APEPCY deputy director, likes to compare setting up an APEPCY house and helping prevent AIDS in terms of first “making a nest” and “laying an egg.”

“Even when APEPCY provides financial support, most schools tend to refuse our help without hesitation,” he said. “As for sex education and the promotion of AIDS prevention, their first response is ‘What the hell is this?’”

‘Determined’

In 2006, Zhang was editor in chief of a publication affiliated with the Ministry of Health. At the time, a rash of suicides on Beijing college campuses were making headlines, but both the State media and the public attributed the phenomenon to academic pressure, work-related stress and the “weak constitutions” of China’s millennials.

Zhang, however, felt there was more to the issue. She conducted research into the known psychological problems of college students who had committed suicide. Her investigation showed that many college students experienced psychological problems, but that sex was at the heart of the bulk of the most severe cases, a fact that virtually all media coverage of the suicide epidemic had failed to mention.

Zhang was taken aback by her findings, with her research leaving her “determined to do something.” Together with Li, a long-time observer of sexual health and AIDS problems in China, she decided to establish an organization to promote sexual health and AIDS prevention education specifically targeting youth and schools.

Mission

In 2014, UNAIDS announced that the world was on track to eradicate AIDS globally by the end of 2030, but that to attain this goal, treatment and prevention work would have to be conducted simultaneously.

“It is far from being enough to just ‘keep an eye’ on AIDS, when what is really important is prevention,” Zhang told NewsChina. “You cannot overemphasize the importance of preventive measures, particularly in schools.”

Apart from social prejudice, another difficulty faced by APEPCY is the shortage of funds, which is also a problem for most social organizations and charitable institutions in China. What is different in the case of APEPCY, Zhang told our reporter, is the Chinese public would be willing to donate to school construction, assistance for dropouts or programs to help the “left-behind children” of absentee migrant parents – but not to help fund sex education programs.

According to the regulations of the China Charity Federation, a fixed sum of money is required to set up a social program. Before 2006, Zhang was working for the Ministry of Health and thus had a broad range of official contacts. However, when she tried to persuade her friends and acquaintances to support her AIDS education program, she got a cold and even scornful response.

“At the time, members of the public would pale at the mention of AIDS,” said Zhang. “[They saw it as] unseemly for a woman over 30 to keep on talking about sex and AIDS.”

Despite the mockery and the sideways glances, Zhang and Li have persevered. The first APEPCY house was opened in 2007 at Fushun No. 2 Senior High School in Liaoning Province, and was funded by Bai Yansong, a CCTV news anchor who is also the organization’s promotional ambassador.

It was not until recently that public attitudes in China towards HIV and AIDS began to change. Zhang said that alongside increasing attention paid to AIDS education and the general psychological health of young people, it has become relatively easy to raise money, especially with the support of local governments looking to avert a potential public health crisis.

Starting in 2014, the government of Linzhou, Henan Province, began to invest 3 million yuan (US$455,000) annually in HIV/AIDS prevention. In 2014, 12 elementary schools in the city established APEPCY houses, adding another 30 in 2015. According to Wang Jun, Linzhou’s Party chief, the city will open another 100 APEPCY houses in 2016 before expanding the program to cover all 137 schools in its jurisdiction by 2017.

“A small investment now means maximized savings tomorrow,” Wang said. He added: “This is of course not just an economic issue.”

In late 2014, Gu Mingyuan, a professor of education at Beijing Normal University and a senior adviser to APEPCY, wrote a letter to Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to seek more government support and raise awareness of the importance of AIDS prevention among the young. Premier Li and Vice-premier Liu Yandong replied to Gu’s letter with a proposition to combine AIDS prevention and sexual health education, pointing out that “sexual health education is a crucial lesson for the development of Chinese youth.”

Last August, the Ministry of Health and the National Health and Family Planning Commission jointly issued a directive to strengthen AIDS prevention and control at schools. To this day, at least 665 APEPCY houses have been launched in more than 20 cities nationwide, with hundreds more in the preparation stage. In Yunnan Province alone, 185 APEPCY houses have been established since 2012, with the organization training thousands of teachers in its partner schools.

Zhang recalled to our reporter that in previous years, when APEPCY decided to invite government officials to attend AIDS prevention events, most of them declined. For the organization’s December seminar, however, many senior officials at the ministerial level came out in a show of support.

Zhang said her aim is to open a total of 10,000 APEPCY houses nationwide. She has even begun to add Chinese culture classes into her organization’s curriculum. However, her fundamental goals remain the same. “For the prevention of AIDS among the young, schools are our main battlefield; sex education our main weapon,” said Zhang.

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