By Xinhua writers Cao Kai and Gui Juan
WENLOU, Henan Province, Nov. 30 (Xinhua) -- On a sunny winter morning, throngs of people gather at a market lining the road in front of the Wenlou village committee. Vendors hawk padded jackets, blankets and snacks.
Nearby, a number of elderly villagers watch a local style of opera.
From the outside, Wenlou in Shangcai County, Henan Province, looks like a typical village in central China. The tombs that dot the wheat fields are a somber reminder that the past 20 years have been anything but ordinary.
More than two decades have passed since a disastrous blood collection drive led to an AIDS epidemic among the peasants in Wenlou in the mid-1990s. The tragedy earned Wenlou the nickname "China's AIDS Village."
More than half of the 678 infected in the blood drive have already died.
Out of more than 3,000 villagers in Wenlou, 311 are infected with HIV. The youngest is 14 and the oldest is over 70, according to Cheng Xiaoduan, head of the village clinic.
BLOOD FOR A HOUSE
There are signs of a brighter future for villagers in Wenlou. Clusters of two-story buildings have sprung up. They are stylishly decorated with ornate gates -- a display of wealth by the young in Wenlou, many of whom spend all their earnings from the city on comfortable new homes.
Chen Fan (pseudonym), 61, is basking outside his new two-story house. It has a burglar-proof door and marble floors. His son, a coach driver in the county seat, spent more than 150,000 yuan (21,780 U.S. dollars) to build it.
In 1993, Chen and his wife started going to the neighboring cities of Xinxiang, Zhumadian and Jiaozuo to sell blood plasma so they could earn money to build three houses. Chen made only 45 yuan per donation at blood stations. He cannot remember how many times he did it.
"As long as we were short of money, we went to the blood station," said Chen. His tiny plot for growing wheat and corn never brought in enough money.
They both tested positive for HIV in 1999, when Gui Xi'en, an infectious disease specialist with Zhongnan Hospital at Wuhan University in the neighboring province of Hubei, conducted an epidemiological survey in the village. His wife died four years later.
In the early 1990s, illegal blood donation stations moved into rural Henan and offered to pay for blood. These operations extracted plasma, then sold it to pharmaceutical companies.
For peasants in villages like Wenlou, it was a quick and easy way to make money. But the illegal stations were often negligent in hygiene and sterilization. The result was an AIDS epidemic that only came to light when Dr. Gui arrived in the village.
In Shangcai alone, there were 22 AIDS villages home to more than 100 people infected with HIV each. In Henan, there were 38 such villages, according to local health authorities.
Starting in 2000, a growing number of those infected with HIV in the village began developing AIDS and dying in greater numbers.
For Liu He (pseudonym), 63, the hissing and popping of firecrackers for funerals was always chilling.
"I thought I would be next when I heard the sound of firecrackers," said Liu, one of several survivors from the first group to test positive for HIV.
Forty people died in 2003, the worst year, including Liu's husband. Seven of them died on the same day, she said.
Dr. Cheng Xiaoduan was terrified when she first arrived at the Wenlou village clinic in 2001.
"I wore two layers of plastic gloves and two masks. I would not sit on the same chair as the AIDS patients," said Cheng.
Wang Ping (pseudonym), 53, who was diagnosed as HIV-positive in 2000, recalled her children would not eat dinner with her.
"A simple mention of Wenlou would send shivers down people's spines," said Wang. "For two or three years in a row, young people of marriageable age from the village could not find spouses and they had to hide their real identities when they went out to work."
Things started to change in 2003, when the Chinese government began to offer free antiretroviral drugs and medication for AIDS patients in 51 key AIDS prevention and control areas, including Shangcai.
More than 200 million yuan was set aside to help the country's AIDS villages, build welfare homes for children orphaned due to AIDS, and improve infrastructure.
Former Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visited Wenlou in 2005 and 2007, which helped relieve discrimination against people with HIV and AIDS.
Wang Ping's family began eating dinner with her again. She is now in charge of cooking for the whole family and picks up her grandson from kindergarten every day.
Wang, who always has a smile on her face, said she never thought she would live so long.
Wang traveled to neighboring Xiping County to sell blood in the early 1990s so she could afford to turn her thatched cottage into a tile-roofed house.
"I pity my mother. She sacrificed too much for us," said her 28-year-old son, who left Shanxi Province after years of construction jobs to return to Wenlou last year. He bought a truck this summer with hopes of running a transportation business.
Dr. Cheng learned to be comfortable around her HIV-positive patients years ago. She is the closest person in Liu He's life.
Liu lives alone as her three daughters are all married. Liu meets Dr. Cheng at the clinic entrance every morning and accompanies her even when she treats patients.
"I feel at ease seeing her around," said Liu, who eats lunch with Cheng every weekday at noon.
"It's not just medication, but also psychological support that helps patients survive," said Cheng.
Although she earns a humble monthly salary of 2,000 yuan, Cheng said her efforts are worth it when she sees patients living a normal life.
(This article uses pseudonyms to protect the privacy of those living with HIV/AIDS.)