Hepatitis B carriers call for equal rights

Updated: 2012-07-28 21:23


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HANGZHOU - Hundreds of hepatitis B (hep B) carriers gathered in downtown Chengdu, Sichuan province, to cover their eyes, ears and mouths, symbolizing "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil," in a bid to raise awareness about their infection on Saturday, World Hepatitis Day.

"Although the number of hep B carriers is huge in China, people are reluctant to accept them. I hope this performance art can bring the public's attention to the need for equal rights for those with hep B," said Cheng Zhuo, the organizer of the event in Chengdu.

Lei Chuang, a 25-year-old activist against hep B discrimination as well as a post-graduate student at Zhejiang University, initiated a "hep B carriers treat you to dinner" event on the Twitter-like Sina Weibo this week, winning support from people living with hep B in 12 Chinese cities.

"Our focus is not the dinner itself. We are calling for a scientific spirit and equal rights," said Lei, who is a hep B carrier.

"We want to let more people understand hep B and eliminate social discrimination against us," he added.

Feng Bofeng, a human resources manager in Hangzhou, asked to have dinner with Lei.

"As an HR manager, I know companies' prejudice against hepatitis B carriers remains serious," Feng said. "I want to challenge this phenomenon."

As of noon Saturday, 25 people in the southern boomtown of Guangzhou had taken to Weibo to ask to join the local "hep B carriers treat you to dinner" event.

Although some are showing support, shifting widespread public attitudes is no easy task.

"People quickly run away when they hear the words 'hepatitis B.' Some even say it is infectious," said Yang Zhanqing, initiator of the "hep B carriers treat you to dinner" event in Zhengzhou, a city in Central China's Henan province.

About 93 million Chinese people are infected with the hepatitis B virus (HBV), 70 percent of whom are HB carriers, according to the Chinese Ministry of Health.

Although it has been scientifically proven that hep B can only be transmitted via blood, sex and mother-to-fetus transmission, public sentiment has not caught up with science.

In the late 1980s, an outbreak of hepatitis A (hep A), which is highly contagious, occurred in Shanghai. Doctors did not differentiate hep A from hep B then, leading the public to mistakenly consider hep B to be infectious through general, daily contact.

Furthermore, several laws passed in the 1990s placed restrictive regulations on hep B carriers, exacerbating discrimination against the group.

Chinese job hunters with hep B have long complained of being discriminated against on the grounds of their carrier status.

In 2005, the government issued a health standard that put hep B carriers among those eligible for the civil service.

In 2010, the Ministry of Health together with the ministries of education and human resources and social security issued a regulation to ban universities and enterprises from screening for HBV in their recruitment processes.

"Discrimination against hep B carriers is easing but it is still worrisome in regards to employment," said Lei Chuang.

Seven graduate students were turned down by AVIC Chengdu Engine (Group) Co Ltd in mid-July after a health check revealed that they were hep B carriers.

According to a survey released in 2011 by the Beijing Yirenping Center, an NGO dedicated to promoting social justice and public health, 35 percent of 180 major State-owned enterprises said they would not accept hep B carriers as employees.

Some 61 percent of those State-owned enterprises said they require employees to be screened for HBV, according to the survey.

"The cost of violating the law is minimal. That's why companies still do the medical screening for HBV," said Lu Jun, a staff member with the Beijing Yirenping Center.

Companies that conduct illegal HBV screenings only need to pay 1,000 yuan ($158) in fines, he said.

Lu suggested enacting a special anti-discrimination law and increasing penalties for enterprises violating the law.

"Whether discrimination comes from enterprises or the public, it is rooted in a lack of understanding about hep B," said Zhu Yimin, a public health professor with Zhejiang University.

The government should publicize hep B information among the public and crack down on those who disseminate false information about hep B, Zhu said.