While exact figures for the presence of HIV/AIDS in Tibetan areas is unknown, there are several factors that are causing health professionals to be concerned that those numbers may be far higher than expected.
The last few decades have seen a large influx of Chinese sex workers in Tibetan towns and cities, catering primarily to the high number of PLA troops stationed in Tibet and the growing Chinese settler and migrant populations.
Many of these Chinese prostitutes work in shops disguised as hairdressers and massage parlors and operate with little to no fear of the law. There are also reports of poor and uneducated rural Tibetan girls entering the sex trade, some by choice and a growing number who are coerced into it after being lured away from their villages with promises of legitimate work.
Another factor that could be contributing to the risk of HIV/AIDS infection in today’s environment is an age old cultural practice in some segments of Tibetan society. According to Dr. Lhamo Sherpa, an independent researcher based in Nepal, “The practice of polyandry in the Tibetan societies also gives the society an additional risk of spreading HIV/AIDS.”
Dr. Sherpa said that thus far there is no reliable information on how many people are infected in Tibet, and that the Chinese government excludes HIV/AIDS information on Tibet in its national data.
According to Chinese government data that Dr. Lhamo did receive, there are approximately 780,000 HIV patients in China, with a large concentrations of them being in the Western regions that border Tibet.
According to Dr. Lhamo, the release of these sorts of statistics is a relatively new development as China treated the nation’s HIV/AIDS information a closely guarded state secret for many years, fearing that the numbers may scare off potential foreign investors coming into the country.
In 2003 for instance, Ma Shiwen, deputy director of the Henan Centre for Disease Control was arrested and sentenced to 10 years in prison on a conviction of leaking state secrets, which some human rights groups said was in fact for leaking AIDS information.