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China admits AIDS rising sharply

An elderly man cries beside his dying son who has been suffering from AIDS since 1999 when he sold his blood
An elderly man cries beside his dying son who has been suffering from AIDS since 1999 when he sold his blood  


Staff and wires

BEIJING, China -- China is estimating that 850,0000 people are infected with the HIV virus, a rise of more than a quarter a million over last year's figure.

The estimate -- more than double that given in 1999 -- is the highest ever made public in China about an HIV/AIDS epidemic that health experts say could spiral out of control unless the government takes swift action.

The government says it believes 100,000 people have died of the disease, with needle-sharing among IV drug users and contaminated blood supplies accounting for much of the spread.

Officially registered HIV cases in China's 1.3 billion-strong population are still absurdly low due to strong social taboos about the disease, Western experts say.

U.N. health experts believe China has a much worse problem than the government acknowledges, with as many as 1.5 million HIV cases.

The World Health Organization has said China and India, the world's most populous nations, need far-reaching AIDS control programs to avoid the fate of sub-Saharan Africa, which is home to over 70 percent of those infected with HIV.

Official tally too low

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By the end of last year, the Ministry of Health had recorded 30,736 people with the HIV virus, among whom 1,594 had AIDS and 684 had died of the disease, China's official news agency Xinhua said on Thursday.

Chinese health officials have admitted for several years that official figures are way too low.

Their unofficial estimates for the number of HIV carriers in China have risen steadily from 400,000 in 1999 to 500,000 in 2000 and 600,000 in 2001.

Experts at China's National Center for Disease Control and Prevention now estimate the number of HIV/AIDS cases might have reached 850,000 by the end of 2001, Xinhua said.

The number of those with AIDS was put at 200,000, over half of whom had lost their lives due to the disease, Xinhua said.

Pooled blood

Beijing went public with its fight against AIDS last year after state media exposed the rampant spread of the HIV virus in rural Henan province, where farmers sold their blood to purchasing stations.

The blood banks pooled donations in a large tub, extracted plasma and then pumped the residue back into villagers.

China held its first AIDS conference in November, and a state-owned pharmaceutical company announced plans to produce low-cost anti-AIDS drugs.

The United Nations says China could have 10 million HIV/AIDS sufferers by 2010 unless it acts decisively.

Although its infection rates are still far lower than in Africa, health experts say China has all the preconditions for a massive AIDS epidemic -- a large mobile population, widespread prostitution and increasing sexual promiscuity among young people.