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May 22, 2007 > Battling a killer

Battling a killer

By Steve Warga

In the southernmost reaches of China, nestled at the foot of the Tibetan Plateau and bordered by Viet Nam, Laos and Burma, lies remote Yunnan Province. With a name meaning ?Beautiful Clouds in the South,? this enchanting land encompasses alpine mountains, low-lying rain forests, and everything in between. It is home to 42 million people, including 26 of China?s 54 ethnic groups, many of whom still practice their native ways and speak languages so old, their origins have long since been lost in the mists of time.

One provincial city, Liang, is designated a ?World Cultural Heritage City? by UNESCO. The Naxi ethnics still write in hieroglyphics and garb themselves in sheepskin capes. Yunnan is considered a cradle of civilization, having produced hominoid fossils dated back to 1.7 million years ago. It is also home to the mountain-ringed city of Shangri La, most likely the inspiration for author James Milton?s mythical land described in his classic novel, ?Lost Horizons?.

Distantly alluring though it may be, Yunnan Province is stalked by a silent, pitiless killer whose lethal reaches have grown exponentially since 1989. The killer?s name is ?HIV? and its favorite haunts include three out of every ten birth canals where unaware mothers are passing along a deadly virus to their off-spring. So prolific and insidious is this killer that an estimated 20 million Chinese will be infected before the end of the first decade of the Twenty-First Century ? only two and half years away. It is an enormous and chilling problem that has already overwhelmed the communist government?s best efforts. But, there?s hope on the horizon beneath Yunnan?s beautiful clouds.

When former UCLA microbiologist Dr. David Ho came to the prestigious Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center in New York, he found a wealth of resources available to enhance his considerable talents. As part of the research center?s China AIDS Initiative (CAI), Ho launched a project in 2005 targeting the acute rates of mother-to-child-transmissions (MTCT) of HIV. He and his partner researchers developed a strain of antiretroviral medication that promises to reduce the present 33-percent MTCT rate all the way down to two-percent or less. Their first target area? Yunnan Province and its high concentration of HIV carriers.

That same year, local businessman and civic booster Henry Yin became president-elect of Rotary Club of Fremont. He asked another China native, Lena Zee, to chair the International Services Committee. After assuming the presidency in July 2006, Yin told Lee of a documentary he watched on the Chinese TV Channel. The show described the plight of the village of Hibei battling an AIDS epidemic. Yin mentioned this to Lee who began researching the entire AIDS situation in her native land.

Through several contacts, Lee learned of a fundraiser taking place at the Atherton home of Dr. Ta-Lin and Joyce Hsu. The featured guest would be the researcher, Dr. David Ho, seeking donations for CAI. Lee spoke with Hsu, a long-time friend, and arranged for Hsu?s son, Michael, to visit Fremont Rotary last August 16 and present a DVD documentary on Ho?s efforts to combat MTCT in China. Lee also invited all Tri-City Rotary clubs to attend. It was the beginning of what has become an international Rotary effort to fund MTCT intervention and education in Yunnan Province.

Project SPAN (Stop Pediatric AIDS Now) is the name assigned to Lee and Yin?s collaboration with other Rotary clubs. Of critical importance was securing the cooperation of a host club in China. Rotary Club of Shanghai, one of only two in China, answered the call mainly thanks to Service Chair Frank Yih.

Initially, Fremont Rotary was joined by Fremont, Union City, Newark (F.U.N.) Rotary; Mission San Jose Rotary; Mission Sunrise Rotary; Newark Rotary; Niles Rotary; and Warm Springs Rotary. This District 5170, Area 3 group commenced the application process for matching grants from The Rotary Foundation in Evanston, Illinois. Each of the participating clubs pledged funds totaling $13,807 for the first year.

Subject to approval of the application, The Rotary Foundation would match these funds for a total of $34,500, a surprisingly modest sum, given the magnitude of the problem in Yunnan Province. But that money would reach far and wide as the killer virus itself, providing the means for rapid testing, inoculations, computer management systems, and even motor bikes for local doctors tasked with hands-on testing, intervention and, most importantly, education.

The Foundation receives thousands of grant requests every year from Rotary clubs all over the world; far more applications are denied than approved. Even so, Lee pushed ahead and found Rotary clubs outside Area 3 interested in joining Project SPAN. Ultimately, the original group?s funding commitment included Vacaville Rotary, Los Altos Rotary and Northbrook, Ill. Rotary (just outside of Chicago). The realization that three out of every ten babies born in Yunnan will draw their first breaths as HIV-positive stirs many Rotarian hearts to action. Adding to this plight is the sad reality that most of these already infected babies will lose their mothers to AIDS before taking their first baby steps across the room.

Local efforts paid off this past week when The Rotary Foundation officially approved Project SPAN?s application for matching funds. Lee envisions a three-year run that will ultimately provide over $100,000 to a cause she sees as similar to another major Rotary effort. ?About 60 years ago, Rotary led the way in funding for polio vaccines all over the world,? she notes. ?I hope Project SPAN will have the same impact on AIDS.?

Thanks to visionaries Yin, Lee, Ho and countless others, a pernicious and vicious killer will soon face its day of reckoning. In Yunnan Province and elsewhere, untold thousands of future babies will catch their first glimpse of those ?Beautiful Clouds in the South? while lying in the arms of healthy mothers dressed in the brightly-colored costumes of their ancient, native land. As the Rotary motto proclaims: ?Service Above Self.?


To learn more about donating or participating in Project SPAN, contact Rotarian Lena Zee at (510) 421-6666; or  HYPERLINK "mailto:lenazee@aol.com" lenazee@aol.com.

Have great fun and still help Project SPAN by signing-up for the Rotary Golf Classic Charity Golf Tournament on June 1 at Sunol Valley Golf Club; hosted by Rotary Club of Fremont and Warm Springs Rotary Club. For applications and information, talk to a local Rotarian, or call John Souza, toll-free, at (888) 978-9777.
Photos courtesy of Rotary Club of Fremont

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