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China: Experts Warn Lack Of Education May Lead To AIDS Explosion

By Nadia Usaeva

A representative of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) said recently that unless the Chinese government acts quickly and decisively, China is likely to face an AIDS epidemic within a decade. RFE/RL correspondent Nadia Usaeva reports that areas like the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region have the most AIDS cases to date.

Prague, 20 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- UNICEF experts say China is on the "fast track" to an AIDS epidemic and could have more than 10 million cases of HIV/AIDS by 2010 unless government officials act quickly.

Statistics from the Chinese Heath Ministry indicate that more than 600,000 people in the country have the HIV virus that causes AIDS, and that the number is growing by 30 percent annually. The primary cause for the increase is believed to be a surge in infections among intravenous drug users.

Edwin Judd, UNICEF's representative for China and Mongolia, says that ignorance is compounding the problem in that area. He says many AIDS sufferers are unaware they are even carrying the virus, while others, fearing they will be ostracized, don't report it. It's a problem, Judd says, that could contribute to an explosion in the number of China's HIV and AIDS cases:

"We estimate that it is certainly the case that there are probably some 600,000 cases, and there could be anywhere above a million cases in the year 2000-2001. The three causes of this, of course, relate to intravenous drug use, blood contamination, and sexual activity. Our concern among the United Nations theme group on HIV/AIDS is that, if the present patterns would appear to continue unabated, it could be a worst-case scenario of China having some estimated 5 million cases by 2005. We'd very much like to see China succeed in avoiding such a situation. But that will take a very massive public education effort reaching through the general public as well as groups of people that are thought to be particularly high-risk."

Many Chinese have no idea how AIDS is contracted. A recent survey of 4,000 Chinese showed that less than 4 percent understood what HIV/AIDS was and how it can be transmitted. More than half of the people surveyed said they believed that sharing chopsticks and bowls with HIV/AIDS carriers could lead to infection.

Judd says China's slow bureaucracy and decentralized health services also contribute to the problem. Guidelines on proper procedure for blood tests are not always followed. There is no national screening program for the virus, and most hospitals lack adequate resources for dealing with patients with HIV or full-blown AIDS.

In China's poor central and western regions, transfusions of infected blood and unsafe medical procedures are the primary cause of the spread of HIV. A Chinese newspaper reported last week that illegal blood collectors -- known locally as "blood heads" -- often use unsterilized equipment to take blood from farmers who are eager to earn extra cash.

The director of UNICEF's Beijing office, Dr. He Jing-lin, says the government could be doing more to raise awareness of HIV/AIDS and help individuals to learn what they can do to prevent infection:

"The Chinese government has so far implemented certain measures in trying to prevent the further spread of HIV/AIDS infection in the country, and this is true for both the central and provincial authorities. However, since China is so big, the financial and technical input from the government so far in AIDS prevention and treatment is far from enough."

Dr. He says that Yunnan Province in the southeast and the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in the northwest have the highest rates of HIV/AIDS infection:

"According to some relevant statistics and from what we know, the provinces that have the most HIV/AIDS cases are Yunnan, Xinjiang, Guangxi, Sichuan provinces. The Henan Province was also recently added to the list. There are two reasons why these provinces came to our attention as having the most AIDS cases. One is that there seems to be relatively more people in these provinces who engage in activities which could cause [HIV] infection. The other reason is simply that the above-mentioned provinces happen to have been investigated more than others in terms of HIV/AIDS infection."

Since China began its economic reforms more than a decade ago, an estimated 100 million people have left their rural homes to live illegally in the country's booming cities. According to Chinese health statistics, many of the cities' male laborers are turning to prostitution as a means to augment their incomes. Many of the men involved in the sex trade may be HIV-positive without even realizing it. Judd says China's health workers need to learn how to educate and monitor such high-risk groups.

HIV/AIDS is not the only blood-borne infection on the rise in China. A report in today's "The New York Times" says that the overuse of medical injections has led to an alarming surge in the number of hepatitis cases as well. The newspaper reported that 60 percent of Chinese have had hepatitis B, compared with just 1 percent in the United States and Japan.

(Nadia Usaeva is a visiting correspondent from Radio Free Asia.)