For a country as large as China, no surprise that the popularity of dating apps in recent years has made it easier than ever before for people to hook up and have sex. But, coupled with a lack of proper sex education, that has also made it easier than ever before to contract HIV/Aids.
“Those hook-up apps accelerate the spread of the disease,” said Xiao Dong, director of Man Wellness Centre, an HIV testing centre based in Beijing. But if you think it is just the young people in China at risk of getting HIV through sexual transmission, think again.
Among older people, endemic loneliness and a lack of sexual literacy have also led to a rapid rise in new infections.
According to China’s Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the number of new HIV infections among people over 50 years old rose more than 11-fold between 2007 and 2017, from 2,565 cases a year to 29,860, reported the South China Morning Post (SCMP).
Shao Yiming, the CDC’s chief HIV expert, reported last week that one of the oldest patients to contract HIV was 93 years old. “The person was fine at 91 years old but contracted the disease at 93,” he said.
In many parts of the world, HIV treatment and prevention programmes have slowly worked to reduce the number of new infections every year. However, in China, the numbers are growing.
The Chinese National Health Commission reported that 131,000 people contracted the disease in 2019. In 2007, the number of new cases was just under 33,000. This year, 95% of the newly infected HIV patients contracted the disease through sex – 70% were heterosexual partners.
More sex education needed
Chinese schools do not have a history of teaching sex education, instead opting to ask students to study the subject on their own. Proper sexual behaviour, how to build relationships with the opposite sex, and gender and identity issues were often ignored in classrooms.
Zhang Renjie, director of Red Ribbon Social Service Centre, a non-governmental group focused on public health and based in the eastern city of Suzhou, said Chinese teenagers “usually don’t know how to refuse sex, or ask for the kind of sex acts they want”.
Huang Haojie, executive director of the Wuhan LGBT Centre in Wuhan, said: “We have heard of patients who contracted HIV as young as 13 and 15. Most teenagers got the disease through sex.”
The number of new HIV patients between the age of 10 and 15 rose from 881 to 3,388 per year between 2007 and 2017, according to the Chinese CDC.
Huang said much of Chinese society believes it is mostly gay people who catch HIV, a debunked misconception.
Xiao agreed: “Some schools would tell their students don’t be gay or don’t try out being gay just for fun because of the risk of contracting HIV.”
The old and lonely
It’s not just the young who are vulnerable. The other demographic hit hard by China’s growing HIV crisis is the elderly population. As a result of China’s rapid urbanisation, with millions of young people leaving rural areas and small towns for better job opportunities in the cities, many old people were left alone at home.
These elderly people often experience profound loneliness, which they fill by finding new sexual partners.
Many older people skipped safety precautions because they thought they were not at risk, having assumed HIV is a young person’s disease.
Zhang said: “Most older people don’t like to talk about their sex life with others, so they end up using dated knowledge in a time where HIV is spreading much more widely and the risk of contracting is much higher.”