University of Utah researcher Shuping Wang, hailed as a “public health hero” for exposing HIV and hepatitis epidemics in China back in the 1990s, has passed away on September 21.
Dr. Wang was hiking with her husband and some friends when she died from a heart attack, KSL TV reports. She was 59.
“Her public health career in China is going to live on for a long time. That’s a big part of her legacy,” Wang’s husband, Gary Christensen was quoted as saying.
“She leaves a big hole in my heart. We lost a giant,” he shared.
Many consider her efforts heroic as she defied government orders by speaking out. Thanks to her, over 10,000 people were saved from potential harm.
Wang was working at a medical clinic in the Henan province of China at the time, long before she had even met Christensen.
In 1991, many locals sold their blood to local government-run blood banks. Assigned at a blood collection station, she realized the huge public health risk at the station which utilizes poor collection practices, such as cross-contamination in blood-drawing. Such actions meant many donors were being infected with hepatitis C from other donors.
When she warned senior colleagues at the station about her concerns, she was ignored and told that changing practices would only “increase costs.”
She eventually reported the issue to the Ministry of Health, prompting the ministry to eventually announce that all donors would need to undergo hepatitis C screening. This helped reduce the risk of spreading the disease.
Instead of getting recognition for her whistle-blowing, Dr. Wang was blamed by her seniors for “impeding the business.” She was then transferred and assigned to work in a health bureau where she would uncover another scandal in 1995.
Under her own initiative and using her own money, she tested the blood samples of over a hundred patients for HIV. When she discovered that 13% of them had been infected with the virus, she made a report about it to the government.
Wang also warned the authorities against cost-cutting measures the public clinics were taking that were putting thousands of others at risk for cross-contamination. The Chinese government initially told her to keep it quiet and eventually relented after her persistence.
“She didn’t really flaunt that among people that she knew closely,” Christensen added. “She wouldn’t share that with day to day people that we’d meet. She was just a very down to earth person.”
According to Christensen, Wang’s exposé resulted in her getting beaten and her clinic getting vandalized and destroyed. She was told that by revealing their unsafe practice, she had marred the reputation of Henan province.
However, in 1996, all the blood and plasma collection sites across the country were shut down for “rectification,” reports the BBC. HIV testing was added when they re-opened. Surprisingly, a high-ranking official would complain at a health conference later that year against a “man in a district clinical testing center [who] dared to report the HIV epidemic directly to the central government.”
“He said, [who is] the guy – how dare he [write] a report about this?” Dr. Wang recently told the BBC in an interview earlier this month. “I stood up and said I’m not a man. I’m a woman and I reported this.”
Health officials later fired her from her job.
“I lost my job, they asked me to stay home and work for my husband,” she said.
Her first husband, who worked at the Ministry of Health, was ostracized by his colleagues. Their marriage did not last long after that.
The Chinese government’s intimidation tactics became too much to bear for her that she eventually fled to the United States in 2001. The country was then facing a serious AIDS crisis, the government would later publicly admit. It was reported that over half a million people had become infected after selling their blood to local blood banks. Henan, the province where Dr. Wang had previously worked, was one of the worst hit.
Before her death, Wang worked as a researcher in the neurobiology and imaging department at the University of Utah. Her life and work in China have recently been adapted into a play, which is currently running in London’s Hampstead Theatre.
Dr. Wang was able to see the play’s premiere with her husband on September 12. According to Christensen, the actors invited her on stage to take a bow with them. Upon walking on stage, she received a thunderous standing ovation from the audience.
“Speaking out cost me my job, my marriage and my happiness at the time, but it also helped save the lives of thousands and thousands of people,” Dr. Wang told the Hampstead Theatre just a month before her death.
Wang is survived by her husband and three children.
Featured image via the Hampstead Theatre