The Plasma Economy in 1990s Rural China
Kathleen McLaughlin’s “AIDS Granny in Exile,” profiles the incredible gynecologist and activist Gao Yaojie. The piece offers some devastating background into how HIV spread through blood transfusions in 1990s rural China which Gao has dedicated her life to shedding light on:
Though the donors of Henan got a pittance for their blood, middlemen grew relatively wealthy on what was believed to be a pure, untainted plasma supply. Plasma traders worked to convince Chinese people traditionally opposed to giving blood — thought to be the essence of life — to sell it. Villages were festooned with red sloganeering banners: “Stick out an arm, show a vein, open your hand and make a fist, 50 kuai” (at the time, about $6), “If you want a comfortable standard of living, go sell your plasma,” and “To give plasma is an honor.”
Local officials in some places went on television, telling farmers that selling plasma would maintain healthy blood pressure. (It doesn’t.) Traders pressured families, especially women. Since females bleed every month, the cracked reasoning went, they could spare a few pints for extra income.
The system became a perfect delivery vehicle for HIV. Thousands upon thousands of the farmers who sold plasma to supplement meager earnings left with a viral bomb that developed into AIDS. In the years before education and life-extending antiretroviral drugs, it was a death sentence.
Gao has written 27 books chronicling the lives of these victims, and currently lives in exile in New York City, supporting herself on about $35,000/year in private donations.