December 19, 1927 - December 10, 2023
The Board of Trustees, Officers, and Staff of the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation mourn the loss of GAO YAOJIE, 2003 Ramon Magsaysay Awardee for Public Service.
Dr. GAO YAOJIE passed away on 10 December 2023 in New York City, USA, at the age of 95. Her departure leaves a void in the world of public service, where she dedicated her life to addressing the pressing issues surrounding HIV/AIDS in China.
Dr. GAO, a specialist in ovarian gynecology, was already retired from Henan College of Traditional Chinese Medicine when she encountered her first AIDS patient in 1996. The woman was infected with HIV through a hospital blood transfusion, “As I knew even before, since the early 90s, blood trade was rampant in hundreds of villages in Henan province. Around 2 million farmers in Henan province have sold their blood to make money from 1991 to 1996,” GAO shared.
She then began to investigate AIDS in Henan's crowded villages, recording medical histories and documenting them with photographs. As she did so, she uncovered a hidden epidemic. GAO eventually estimated that 20 percent of Henan Province's population was HIV-positive. “I also often went to the countryside where I have seen that in most of the AIDS villages, people were dying without care by the government,” she said.
To raise awareness, GAO mounted a campaign on her own, despite having no materials to warn people about AIDS, by publishing and distributing AIDS-related reports and brochures, and traveling to AIDS-impacted villages to treat and comfort patients and instruct their neighbors.
She is well known in China and worldwide for her AIDS prevention work during the HIV epidemic in Henan, and for advocating much greater attention to people suffering from AIDS and children orphaned by AIDS. Her split with the Chinese authority on the transmission and the seriousness of the AIDS epidemic in China hindered her further activities and resulted in her leaving for the United States in 2009.
Zhang Jicheng, a former journalist from Henan who was among the earliest to report on the AIDS outbreak there, said in an interview, “GAO YAOJIE was crucial, because she saw what was happening in the villages and kept talking and talking about it. Many people didn’t understand why she did it, but she’d already been through so much that she wasn’t afraid.”
Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Dr. GAO was "simply one of the bravest people I know."
Andrew Nathan, a political science professor at Columbia University who handled much of Dr. GAO's affairs in the United States remembers, "Many Chinese regarded her as a hero, and when they came to New York, if they didn't know how to contact her, they would ask me. I would ask them for an email written in Chinese and would forward it to her. So far as I know, she always wrote back to those people and welcomed them to come visit."
In 2003, GAO YAOJIE received the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service for “her fervent personal crusade to confront the AIDS crisis in China and to address it humanely.”