China faces HIV epidemic - UN


The head of the United Nations AIDS organisation has warned that China is on the brink of a major HIV epidemic. Speaking on the eve of a national conference on AIDS and HIV in China, the executive director of UNAID, Mr Peter Piot, urged the Chinese government to take a lead in fighting the killer disease.

Mr Piot also called on the authorities to admit there have been massive infections through the operation of illegal blood banks in central China. He said if the Chinese government took the lead and spoke out, it could make a difference and save lives.

"The AIDS situation has become really serious," said Mr Piot yesterday. "China is at the verge of a major epidemic if business as usual continues." Mr Piot said he was particularly concerned about reports of HIV infection rates as high as 65 per cent in some Henan villages.

A group of farmers infected with HIV through selling blood in Henan province claimed yesterday they have been ignored by the authorities and begged Chinese leaders for help. "I think it is a priority for the country to be open about the extent of the problem," said Mr Piot.

Throughout the 1990s, farmers in Henan sold blood for £4 a pint to unlicensed blood banks, which mixed donations in a big tub, extracted plasma, and pumped the residue back into donors.

It has also emerged that illegal blood banks caused mass infections in the neighbouring province of Shanxi. The government admitted in August there was an AIDS problem in Henan and said it had sent teams to investigate and open clinics.

But eight HIV carriers from Henan villages, some already dying of AIDS, claimed in a petition sent to the conference organisers that they have been given no medicine, information or advice on the disease.

They have appealed to the authorities to provide treatment and education and punish those responsible.

Mr Piot urged the central government to use state-controlled media and mass organisations like the women's federation and youth federation to boost AIDS awareness. Today's conference, organised by the Ministry of Health with UN support, is the first major conference on AIDS in China.

The UN has said China could have 10 million HIV carriers by 2010 unless it acts decisively. Mr Piot said it is estimated there are already one million HIV carriers in China, but said it was hard to measure the figure accurately.