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November 25, 2009

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Sexual transmission of AIDS clearly leads spread in China

SEXUAL transmission was the cause of about 72 percent of new HIV/AIDS cases in China last year, while infection among gay and bisexual men has increased to 32 percent of new cases.

These alarming figures were released in Shanghai yesterday by officials from the World Health Organization and the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, or UNAIDS.

The actual numbers could be much greater as the statistics only include cases reported by medical facilities.

By October 31, China had reported 319,877 cases of HIV/AIDS, including 102,323 AIDS patients.

The Ministry of Health and UNAIDS estimated that there will be up to 920,000 Chinese people living with HIV by the end of this year.

About 48,000 people were infected with the virus this year in China, according to official estimates.

Between January and September last year, the ministry reported 44,839 new HIV/AIDS cases.

The officials unveiled the 2009 AIDS Epidemic Update and UNAIDS Outlook Report 2010, the first time the annual reports have been formally released in China.

UNAIDS officials said though new HIV infections were down 17 percent over the past eight years, the epidemic had gone in new directions.

Prevention efforts were not keeping pace with this shift, including the rise of HIV/AIDS due to unprotected sex and the spreading even among people with stable sex partners, they said.

"For instance, it is an important statistic that men who have sex with men have accounted for 32 percent of the new HIV/AIDS cases in China, while heterosexual groups covered 40 percent," said Michel Sidibe, executive director of UNAIDS.

He said these things must be considered while launching HIV prevention initiatives.

Health Minister Chen Zhu said: "Sex has become a major vehicle for spreading HIV in China and the ministry has decided to enhance prevention works in key regions and population areas."

Chinese health officials said HIV infection had expanded from at-risk population areas like sex workers and clients, gay and bisexual men and injecting drug users into low-risk zones.

"The overall incidence of HIV/AIDS in China is low, but it is highly prevalent in specific regions and some at-risk sectors of the population," Chen said.

In addition, there is "an urgent need" in Asia to improve HIV testing services. In China, fewer than one in three people living with HIV had been diagnosed.

Chen said the ministry would focus on a greater access to HIV tests and improve the capability of diagnosis to give more of those infected timely advice and earlier treatment.

He also said the ministry may promote HIV prevention measures among migrant workers next year.

"AIDS prevention and education shouldn't leave any blanks, which means sex workers are also covered by our intervention program," Chen said.

The minister said HIV prevention measures targeting sex-related transmission was a complicated issue, as sex was widely considered a taboo topic in China.

"AIDS prevention and control among gay men are more difficult due to social discrimination," he said.

Chen called for all of society's participation in the fight against HIV/AIDS and comprehensive intervention on behavior, medical and social therapy for at-risk areas of the population.

Sex started to become the top cause of transmission in 2006.

Central government funding for AIDS control grew from 390 million yuan (US$57.1 million) in 2003 to 994 million yuan in 2008 while funding from local governments grew from 100 million yuan to 600 million yuan in the same period, Chen said.

China "appreciated and welcomed" the support of the international community, the health minister said.


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