Gao Yaojie

AIDS Activist, China

For most people her age, a comfortable retirement would be their top priority. But 74-year-old Dr. Gao Yaojie, a gynecologist and grandmother from Henan Province, has no intention of giving up her campaign against the AIDS crisis. Thanks to her efforts, and despite resistance from health officials, Gao has played a key role in putting AIDS on the agenda in China. After years of labeling AIDS as a "Western disease," Beijing last fall admitted that 850,000 Chinese have HIV, the virus that causes AIDS--though experts say that more than a million people are likely infected. The government has pledged to spend $12 million a year on disease prevention and control.

It has taken more than a decade to get Beijing to acknowledge the problem. Gao, who earned her medical degree from Henan University in 1954, first came across HIV patients at a Henan prison in the early 1990s. She was shocked at how little these afflicted inmates knew about sexually transmitted diseases. Then, in 1996, she learned that the illegal sale of blood was also contributing to the rapid spread of AIDS through blood transfusions in rural China. That's when Gao decided to devote herself full-time to informing hospitals, schools, factories, and farms about the disease. "As a doctor, I could receive a maximum of 10 patients a day," says Gao. "But with education, one can reach thousands a day."

She penned an AIDS-education book and used her meager savings of $30,000 to distribute it. Local officials did all they could to stop her. For years, they would force the cancellation of the AIDS-education lectures she was scheduled to give at local colleges. Henan officials even accused her of being in cahoots with "hostile foreign forces," says Gao. Last summer, officials turned down her passport application, preventing Gao from traveling to the U.S. to accept an award for her work. Only now are provincial officials lending support, offering to contribute $19,000 toward the latest printing of Gao's book.

Although she's heartened that Beijing is starting to take AIDS seriously, she thinks much more needs to be done to educate the masses. A new U.N. report predicts that within a couple of years, China will have more HIV patients than any other country. "You can't put out a big fire with a cup of water," says Gao. That's why, she says, "for the rest of my life, I'll keep giving AIDS-education lectures." Her latest cause: making sure children who lost a parent to AIDS get an education. For this plucky doctor, retirement is not an option.

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