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Henan Villagers Seek Justice in Hepatitis C Scandal

Doctor Admitted Reusing Needles, Hundreds Infected

Villagers from a county in the central province of Henan say they are still seeking justice almost two years after a doctor admitted reusing syringes and nearly 1,000 people were found to have hepatitis C.

The scandal, which has received little attention so far, started to unfold in May 2012 when doctor Li Junchao was detained and charged with illegal medical practices. For more than thirty years Li ran a tiny, run-down clinic that served the village of Jinggang in the county of Qi.

Doctors at a county hospital had started to worry there was a problem earlier in the year. When patients arrived from Jinggang, doctors asked if they had been to "that clinic" and recommended a test for hepatitis C, a disease that is spread by blood-to-blood contact and that can result in serious liver damage.

Residents of Qi county went to a disease control center in the city of Kaifeng, about a four hour-drive away, to complain. This prompted health officials to perform tests on residents of the county and what they found was startling: nearly 1,000 people had hepatitis C. The village of Jinggang, with its population of 5,000, was hit the hardest, with 350 of its people testing positive.

Li admitted reusing single-use syringes since 2010, saying he rinsed them between patients. It was a common practice in the past, he said, and he did not think anything serious would could come of it.

Li was fined 4,800 yuan ($781) and his clinic was closed. Villagers were so angry they ransacked the clinic while the police watched.

Local authorities do not acknowledge that the epidemic was caused by any medical malpractice. Some 535 people infected with hepatitis C filed a lawsuit seeking compensation, but a local court rejected it.
 
Li had a reputation among residents of Qi county for providing intravenous treatments. He was known to treat jaundice—one symptom of hepatitis C—with IV treatments. Treatments could last 100 days and patients paid 90 to 100 yuan ($15-$16) per visit.

One man who also ran a medical clinic in Jinggang acknowledged his former competitor's skill, saying: "I would also go see him if I needed a doctor." In 2010, the man went to Li for treatment of one problem and later found he had contracted hepatitis C.

The man said Li was probably not trying to save money by reusing syringes and needles because the costs for those items would be covered by patients. Some villagers say they think Li was trying to generate more business for his clinic by making people sick.

Little Help

The high costs of treatment for hepatitis C have brought many victims' families to the verge of poverty. They also face discrimination. Li Ruying, who visited Li's clinic and was later found to have hepatitis C, said her relatives will not eat at the same table as her out of fear they could be infected, a sign villagers still do not understand the disease. The woman says her daughter suffers discrimination at school.

Parents are worried that their children will not be able to marry because they have the disease, and some have chosen to have abortions or be sterilized out of fear they could give it to their children.

Li has been punished, but residents of Qi county want him jailed and for compensation to be paid. The county government says there is "not enough evidence to determine a causal connection between the epidemic and Li's clinic," and that "the case is in need of further investigation."

The government said it would pay people's medical costs, but in many cases that has not happened.

Villagers have taken to petitioning higher levels of government—a step people in China resort to when they feel their grievances have not been fairly dealt with—but that has not accomplished much.

Some 100 residents of Qi county went to the provincial capital of Zhengzhou to petition, but county officials headed them off and convinced them to sign a document stating they would never try this again.

A few people have even gone as far as the capital to complain to health officials, who referred them back to their local government. An employee of the Ministry of Health's petition office got them in touch with a lawyer, but that has not helped much either.

Li Qingyi, a county official who oversees food safety, said the case had been handled well, and that considering nearly two years have passed and Li was punished, it should be closed.

Wang Yong, a law professor at China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing, said health regulators in Qi country should explain why they have ignored Li's medical practice for three decades.

But Wang also pointed to a larger problem. "When local authorities have their own interests in solving a crisis in a particular way, it will greatly distort and damage regular procedures," he said. "They will focus on maintaining stability and preventing further unrest, rather than on solving the problem itself."