They line the dusty roads outside the tiny villages of China's Henan province, several hours' drive from Beijing--mounds of dirt funneled into crudely shaped cones, like a phalanx of earthen bamboo hats. To the uninitiated, they look like a clever new way of turning over fields--an agricultural innovation, perhaps, meant to increase crop yields. But the locals know the truth. Buried under the pyramids, which now number in the thousands, are their mothers and fathers, brothers, sisters and cousins, all victims of AIDS. Like silent sentries, the dirt graves are a testament to China's worst-kept secret.
They are the reason Dr. David Ho has come to China. The New York City--based virologist was named TIME's 1996 Person of the Year for his pioneering work on the drug therapies that have largely quelled the AIDS epidemic in the U.S. and Europe. Now Ho is confronting the AIDS virus in its most populous stronghold. Up to 1 million Chinese are HIV positive, and that number could easily grow to 10 million by 2010, according to the Joint U.N. Program on AIDS. If current trends continue for another decade or so, China could overtake Africa, where 29 million people have been infected with the virus.
It's to head off that scenario that Ho has traveled more than a dozen times to China over the past three years, setting up labs, visiting clinics, gathering blood samples, educating health workers and negotiating the intricately layered bureaucracy of the Chinese health establishment. Ho's efforts--and those of other AIDS activists--finally paid off last week when, on World AIDS Day, the Chinese government took a lesson from its sluggish response to the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic and launched its first big AIDS public-awareness campaign, complete with posters, TV spots and an unprecedented visit by Premier Wen Jiabao to a Beijing hospital, where he shook hands with AIDS patients.
TIME accompanied Ho and his team from the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center (ADARC) for two weeks earlier this year as he traveled from Kunming, the cosmopolitan capital of Yunnan province, where his drug-treatment and vaccine projects are based, to the remote border town of Ruili, where heavy heroin trafficking and a thriving sex trade create a perfect HIV breeding ground, to Beijing, for his meetings with party leaders, including the newly appointed Minister of Health, Wu Yi. Everywhere Ho went, his mission was the same: to persuade Chinese officials to step up their modest anti-AIDS efforts and commit the resources necessary to launch a comprehensive nationwide program, modeled on the projects he has begun in Yunnan.
The neatly dressed husband and wife are in their 50s and comfortingly average looking. Their once-smooth dark skin is now veined and burnished to a proud sheen, reflecting the decades of hard work they have put into raising a family, earning their salaries and, now, battling HIV.