An internationally renowned whistleblower who exposed the spread of HIV and hepatitis at blood centers in rural China died while hiking in September near Salt Lake City.
Shuping Wang’s family and friends describe her as gregarious, generous and so happy that many who befriended her in Utah weren’t aware of her dramatic story: that she fled Henan province after she said officials there beat her, smashed her lab and tried to destroy her research into the lucrative plasma centers that were not taking the proper safety precautions.
Her life story has even been turned into a play that premiered in September in London.
"She was like Joan of Arc," said her husband, Gary Christensen.
Wang, 59, died Sept. 21, apparently from a heart attack while she was hiking with a group of friends on the Mount Aire Trail in Mill Creek Canyon, Christensen said.
Wang left China in 2001 and moved to Wisconsin, said David Cowhig, after controversy over her findings in Henan came to a head. Cowhig was stationed in Beijing to report to the U.S. State Department on Chinese public health issues in 1996 — a year after Wang had reported egregious practices in rural plasma centers.
Wang had collected blood samples from villagers who had sold plasma to for-profit collection centers that were reusing and not adequately cleaning equipment, Cowhig said. She found the rate of hepatitis C infection among blood sellers was more than 40%, according to her 1995 report, which Cowhig translated.
The infection rate among the rest of the population was less than 1%.
Meanwhile, the rate of HIV infection among blood sellers was 15%, Wang wrote. But not a single case of HIV was found in the rest of the local population.
When Wang reported her findings to a local health official, she said, he was initially grateful. But when she followed up two weeks later, he was dubious and demanded further testing, Wang wrote in a 2012 article for the publication China Change.
But no funding was provided, and, on a trip to Beijing, Wang learned that retesting her 55 HIV-positive samples would cost thousands of dollars she didn’t have.
"I left in dejection," Wang recalled.
She then bumped into an epidemiologist who had mentored her earlier in her career, Cowhig said. The professor was alarmed by Wang’s findings and promptly ordered tests that confirmed their accuracy to at least 95 percent certainty, she wrote.
National health officials praised Wang’s work as a lifesaving discovery, she wrote. Administrators at multiple blood centers later were arrested, and, the following year, all of the blood and plasma collection centers in China were closed temporarily for “rectification,” she wrote. HIV testing was implemented.
But back home, she was not praised. Her local health department accused her of causing an “earthquake," she recalled. Authorities there tried to alter her report, Wang wrote. Later, she said, a retired local official appeared at her office with a baton and began smashing lab equipment; when she got in his way, he beat her, too.
At a subsequent conference on AIDS prevention, provincial officials angrily discussed “the man” who had gone straight to Beijing with the damning test results, rather than letting local officials handle the problem.
"I’m the ‘man,’ " Wang announced. She was forced out of the conference, she said, and her testing center was closed.
"Go home to take care of your husband," she recalled health officials admonishing her.
Wang said she continued to work for no pay with villagers who had become infected with HIV, or, as villagers called it, “guai bing” — “strange disease,” Cowhig said. She also remained in contact with health authorities in Beijing, and gradually came to trust Cowhig with her findings.
"She told me things that could get her put in jail," Cowhig said.
Her first husband was ostracized at his job and the couple eventually split up, Christensen said.
Wang decided to leave the country, taking a job at a blood lab in Wisconsin, where she met and married Christensen. Her daughter joined her, as did a niece and nephew, whom the couple adopted. In 2005, they moved to Utah, where Wang worked at the University of Utah and was an enthusiastic hiker, Christensen said.
The family occasionally got word that relatives and former colleagues in China were harassed over Wang’s work, usually after she had talked to a journalist or written an article about her findings, Christensen said.
This year, Christensen said, security officers of some sort had visited her contacts in Henan to pressure Wang to call off a play that was being produced in London, depicting her achievements in China and the fallout for her family there.
Instead, Wang attended the premiere of “The King of Hell’s Palace,” written by Cowhig’s daughter, Frances, barely two weeks before she died.
In an interview with the theater, Wang said:
“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."