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UPDATED: June 13, 2011 NO. 24 JUNE 16, 2011
A Mysterious Disease
People claim to suffer from an infectious condition dubbed HIV-negative AIDS


DON'T PANIC: Zhong Nanshan, Director of the Guangzhou Institute of Respiratory Diseases, discloses the results of his team's research on the 60 people who claimed they were suffering from a mysterious infectious condition dubbed HIV-negative AIDS on May 6, dismissing the danger of an AIDS-like virus (CFP) 

In recent years, a mysterious "malady" has left thousands of people in trepidation. People suffering from the disease display symptoms very similar to AIDS, such as swollen lymph nodes, subcutaneous bleeding, joint pain, fatigue, night sweats and emaciation, but they repeatedly test negative for HIV. This mysterious infectious condition has been dubbed "HIV-negative AIDS."

On April 6, the Ministry of Health dismissed the concerns, saying no new virus had been found linking the so-called HIV-negative AIDS. Medical experts believe patients might be suffering from a kind of psychological AIDS phobia.

On May 10, the ministry held a press conference, restating no evidence suggested the patients suffered from an infectious disease.

But, Zhong Nanshan, an outspoken health expert, who first gave out warnings of the SARS epidemic in 2003, claimed on May 6 HIV-negative AIDS is more than a mental health problem, citing an independent study he led.

"The condition was not simply caused by mental problems," Zhong, Director of the Guangzhou Institute of Respiratory Diseases, told the Guangzhou-based New Express Daily, adding most of the alleged sufferers involved in his study suffered reactive arthritis.

Just panic?

Since 2004, a group of people living with HIV-negative AIDS have been obsessively subjecting themselves to health checks, seeking an explanation for their AIDS-like symptoms.

They reported a history of high-risk sexual encounters or blood transfusions preceding the onset of symptoms. But, not one of the people has tested positive for the HIV virus. Despite these negative results, their AIDS-like symptoms have progressed.

Confused and anxious, they gradually came together through the Internet by creating websites, communities and support groups. They shared their conditions and feelings and tried to seek help and attention from the government and public.

In 2009, they came to the attention of the Ministry of Health. The ministry's spokesman Deng Haihua said they first received a report in June 2009, and the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) started to investigate the situation a month later.

As of 2010, the ministry had received 59 reports of people with the condition in Beijing and Shanghai, as well as in the provinces of Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Hunan and Guangdong.

In 2009, the media began paying attention to and reporting the cases.

The Hong Kong-based Oriental Daily News reported people infected with so-called HIV-negative AIDS believed they had a mysterious HIV-like virus or an AIDS-like condition unable to be detected with current testing technology.

The newspaper reported the mysterious virus could be spread through saliva and blood.

In response, Zeng Guang, CDC's epidemiology chief scientist, conducted the country's first government-initiated study, which involved experts in infectious diseases and mental health professionals.

In 2009 and 2010, the CDC offered free HIV tests to the 59 patients. No evidence was found of HIV or any new virus.

They were tested for HIV, and their CD4 cell ratio in blood, which is an important indicator of the immune system, was found to be at normal level.

There was no mutation of the AIDS virus found in the sample tests, said Liang Lianchun, a member of the CDC special research team.

The CDC performed a second test in May 2010 to check whether the patients were carrying xenotropic murine leukemia virus-related virus (XMRV), a virus discovered in 2006 that is believed to be connected to chronic fatigue syndrome. The tests were again negative, and the CDC concluded the patients were not suffering from chronic fatigue.

To end the panic, the CDC collected and sent blood samples from each patient to the virus laboratory at the University of Southern California in the United States in January. At the end of March, there was no report of any unknown virus found in one third of the samples, Zeng said.

"Since no new virus has been found, I firmly believe this group cannot be carrying a new human virus. The reason we sent the blood samples abroad is to prove to them that the illness is only in their minds," he said.

On April 6, the Ministry of Health published the results. Deng said an epidemiological probe conducted in February and March this year among the target patients in Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Hunan and Guangdong found no sign of infectivity of the symptoms.

To date, none of the tested patients suffered any infection-caused organic abnormality, and there was no case of any serious illness or death among them.

"We are forced to conclude that HIV-negative AIDS does not exist and there is no new unknown virus causing these patients' symptoms. It is our opinion that their condition is caused by some kind of AIDS phobia," Deng said.

Zeng said AIDS phobia was an irrational fear of HIV and AIDS, with a state of intense anxiety and obsessive fear of suffering from AIDS, a fear so strong and overwhelming that not even a negative HIV test will put the fear to rest.

On April 11 and May 10, the Ministry of Health reconfirmed the conclusion at its routine press conferences.

But the patients, especially those who participated in the study, refused to accept the findings and the statement about "AIDS phobia." They asked health authorities to investigate further.

"I don't agree my symptoms were caused by an AIDS phobia," said Yang Cheng, a 26-year-old patient. "I tested negative, but I still have the symptoms."

"We need a more convincing explanation from relative authorities," another patient Lin Jun told China News Service.

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