UN says China is facing an AIDS 'catastrophe' of unimaginable proportions


UN/CHINA: The United Nations said yesterday that China was on the brink of an HIV/AIDS "catastrophe" on an unimaginable scale in one of its harshest assessments of that country's attempts to stem the spread of the virus.

By the end of last year, 800,000 to 1.5 million Chinese were infected with HIV, the virus which can cause AIDS. This showed an increase from 500,000 at the end of 1999, the United Nations Programme on AIDS/HIV (UNAIDS) reported.

While the national infection rate was still far lower than in sub-Saharan Africa - the world's worst-hit region - prevalence in certain areas had reached explosive levels, which threatened to spill into the general population through sexual transmission, the report said.

"At the dawn of the third millennium, China is on the verge of a catastrophe that could result in unimaginable human suffering, economic loss and social devastation," stated the report, which is titled "HIV/AIDS: China's Titanic Peril".

China could have 10 million HIV sufferers by 2010 if no effective counter-measures were taken, UNAIDS officials said.

The Chinese government went public with its fight against AIDS last year after state media exposed the rampant spread of HIV in rural Henan province, where farming families contracted the virus from selling plasma to illegal blood banks.

But the UNAIDS report said that the Chinese government had not done enough. "Awareness of HIV/AIDS has increased only minimally over the last several years," it said.

"Millions of Chinese have never heard the word AIDS. Many still think that one can contract HIV from mosquito bites or from shaking hands. Even so, there are already villages where the greater part of the population is infected."

It blamed institutional red tape, a lack of commitment and leadership, insufficient resources and a crumbling public health care system for the slow response.

"The virus is our enemy, not the people fighting it," said Ms Kerstin Leitner, the UN's resident representative in Beijing.

There was a clear message in the reference to the Titanic in the title of the report, she added. "If the people on the bridge of that ship had acted according to the information they had, then it could have been avoided."

China only had 30,736 officially-registered HIV cases by the end of last year, mostly people incarcerated or hospitalised.

But Chinese health officials said in April that an estimated 850,000 people had contracted the virus, an increase of more than a quarter of a million over last year's figure.

The most frequent modes of transmission were contaminated needles and illegal blood sales, but the spread of HIV was gaining momentum through sexual intercourse, both heterosexual and homosexual, UNAIDS said.

"The question that is important here is the trend, and the trend is alarming," said Ms Siri Tellier, head of the UN Theme Group on HIV/AIDS in China.

"It is very important to remember that low prevalence overall does not mean that there is not a very high prevalence in some areas, and it certainly does not mean that there is not a risk of having it increase very quickly. What the danger is now - and that's why we use the iceberg metaphor - is that it's on the verge of spreading to the general population."