FUYANG, China (Reuters) - The second storey of this nondescript building in Fuyang city in China's central province of Anhui houses HIV-positive orphans, but unlike many other similar establishments, there are no signboards outside.
Heavy stigma still surrounds the disease in China, and children -- probably the most vulnerable group among AIDS patients -- are almost invariably barred from schools and even abandoned by their parents and relatives.
Change is occurring, albeit slowly.
President Hu Jintao last year shook hands with AIDS patients to try and reduce some of the stigma. On World AIDS Day -- December 1 -- this year, he met with AIDS awareness volunteers, and spoke with patients by telephone.
At this orphanage run by the non-government Fuyang AIDS Orphan Salvation Association, children are provided with food, lodging, education and badly-needed drugs to help them control the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which causes AIDS.
The children play games and attend classes, while the association also checks on those who live at home.
"Our children have a healthier state of mind now. When I first started to get to know these children, they had a low self esteem and were afraid of being discriminated against by others," association director Zhang Ying told Reuters.
"After these few years, by staging different kinds of activities for them, the children no longer feel inferior and are more confident about themselves."
One of the biggest difficulties is getting the children to take their medication regularly. HIV is infamous for the speed with which it mutates and incorrect use of drugs will quickly result in drug resistance -- meaning the patient has to take stronger drugs which may not be available in the country.
Chen Xueyan, 9, lives with her grandmother in their dilapidated village home near Fuyang. She contracted HIV from her deceased mother, who was infected when she sold blood.
The transmission of HIV through blood is a particularly sensitive topic. On Tuesday, tearful relatives of haemophiliacs who contracted HIV from blood products took the stage at an AIDS-awareness event in Beijing, to protest against a lack of government support.
Sun Panpan, a staff worker with the Fuyang association, said Chen had previously been taking incorrect dosages of HIV drugs as her father and grandmother had not been monitoring her closely.
"If she persists with such incorrect intake of these medicines over a long period of time, there is a possibility of her becoming immune to the medicine. Then, she would have to change the kind of medicine she is taking," said Sun.
China's total HIV cases number about 740,000, of which about 100,000 have full-blown AIDS. About 50,000 Chinese have died of AIDS since the nation's first case in 1985.
Some 10,000 children in China are HIV-positive, due mainly to botched blood transfusions or mother-to-child transmission.
The children mostly live in central Henan and Anhui provinces, where China's AIDS epidemic took off in the 1990s because of government-run commercial blood selling schemes that resulted in entire villages becoming infected. They can also be found in Yunnan province in the southwest, a drug trading hub.
Some children have lost both parents to AIDS and are now facing another challenge -- how to survive.
China guarantees free drugs for children but there are few pediatric drugs available. Care givers need to pound into powder pills meant for adults and divide them into smaller portions.
The Clinton Foundation gave China its first batch of pediatric drugs to fight HIV in 2005, but only 250 benefitted.
Some NGOs are now making regular visits to the homes of these children to ensure they take their medication correctly. Some, particularly those in rural areas, go without treatment because their families are too poor to afford proper diagnosis.
Writing by Tan Ee Lyn; Editing by Lucy Hornby and Ron Popeski