Dr. Gao Yaojie

China

TIME Magazine has called Gao Yaojie an Asian hero and “Grandmother Courage.” The 80-year old retired doctor from Henan province is Chinas’s most outspoken AIDS activist and public health crusader.

In 1996, Dr. Gao examined a female patient with a mysterious but grave condition. It turned out that more than a year earlier, the patient had received a contaminated blood transfusion during surgery. The shocking realization that the infection came from a blood bank meant there were likely many more victims.

To sound the alarm, Dr. Gao began a vigorous AIDS education, prevention, and treatment program, spending thousands of dollars from her own pension to raise awareness about a disease that rural Chinese were calling the “nameless fever.” The more she investigated, the more apparent it became that HIV/AIDS had already reached epidemic proportions, spread largely through the illegal collection and transmission of tainted blood. Poor rural villagers were selling their blood to support their families and then becoming sick. Most could not afford medical care. Many left orphans behind. The tragic situation only intensified Dr. Gao’s sense of mission and urgency – even in the face of harassment and intimidation from government authorities.

Dr. Gao is a humbling example of the power of one person to change the world. In her words, “As a doctor, I can only treat at most dozens of patients a day — but as an activist of AIDS prevention, every day I can educate at least hundreds of people so as to save even more lives.”