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Gao Yaojie, a pioneering activist who exposed China's AIDS epidemic, dies at 95

Veteran Chinese AIDS campaigner Doctor Gao Yaojie, right, talks with students about AIDS prevention during a series of university lectures in Shanghai, Nov. 30 2006.
Mark Ralston
AFP via Getty Images
Veteran Chinese AIDS campaigner Doctor Gao Yaojie, right, talks with students about AIDS prevention during a series of university lectures in Shanghai, Nov. 30 2006.

Gao Yaojie, a pioneering Chinese public health advocate, died on Sunday at the age of 95 in exile, in New York City.

A trained gynecologist, Gao became well-known and beloved across China for her relentless activism in exposing a man-made AIDS crisis and for her educational work to remove the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS.

In the 1990s, entire villages across central China had alarming numbers of people were testing positive for HIV. Many of these villages were in Henan province, where Gao had spent much of her childhood. Gao, who had by then retired, began investigating how the virus had entered China's countryside.

She discovered that AIDS was spreading through ramshackle blood transfusion centers set up with official government backing. They enticed poor farmers to donate blood, from which the valuable plasma could be extracted. Poor hygienic practices like unsterilized and repeated use of needles, as well as pooling blood from multiple donors that would be reinjected back into people let HIV — the virus that causes AIDS — to spread with deadly efficiency.

Gao was one of the first people to speak out publicly, allowing Chinese media outlets to eventually write about how the sale of blood plasma was spreading HIV/AIDS.

"My driving thought is: how can I save more people from dying of this disease?" Gao told Chinese filmmakers. "We each only live one life."

China's AIDS epidemic infected at least 1 million people starting in the late 1980s, by most accounts. (Gao herself has said that at least 10 million people were infected.) But there is no full accounting, because the Chinese state suppressed reporting about it. While Gao's work later earned her national and international acclaim from politicians including Hilary Clinton, her rising profile meant she also came under close state surveillance locally.

In 2007, Gao was briefly put under house arrest, ringed in in her Henan home by about 50 policemen, in order to prevent her from traveling to the United States to pick up a prize recognizing her work in women's health.

"I think they feel I got in the way of their political achievements and their official careers," she told NPR's Anthony Kuhn at the time. "Otherwise, why would they put me under house arrest? What law did I break to warrant mobilizing all these police?"

Despite pressure from Henan provincial authorities to stop publicizing the AIDS crisis, she continued her work, using all the proceeds from her books and pamphlets to support AIDS families, especially children orphaned by the disease or the many suicides that it caused.

"It is alright if you do not speak up on your own, as long as you do not tell lies," she told an online Chinese media group earlier this year.

Her fearlessness and tenacity stemmed in part from a lifetime of hardship. As a child, her feet were bound, leaving her with a limp her entire life. During the height of the Cultural Revolution, a decade of political violence in the 1960s and 70s, Gao was purged and driven to the point of suicide.

Restrictions on her movement began hindering in work in China, however, and in 2009, she abruptly fled to the US, after fearing she would be put under house arrest again. Many admirers continued to visit her apartment in West Harlem, including a group of young Chinese students who kept her company in the loneliness of exile.

"Many Chinese regarded her as a hero, and when they came to New York, if they didn't know how to contact her ,they would ask me. I would ask them for an email written in Chinese and would forward it to her. So far as I know, she always wrote back to those people and welcomed them to come visit," remembers Andrew Nathan, a political science professor at Columbia University who handled much of Gao's affairs in New York.

Nathan was at her home Sunday morning right after she had passed, waiting for the medical examiners, when two visitors, who had just shown up, only to learn of her death. One had brought a bouquet for Gao. She loved plants.

Emily Feng reported this from Taipei, Taiwan.

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Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.