China warns AIDS spreading among general population

China on Wednesday revised down an estimate of the number of people living in the country with HIV/AIDS, but international health agencies warned that with 70,000 new infections last year, there was no room for complacency. They also warned that the virus was no longer restricted to drug users and those who sold blood, but had begun to spread quickly among the general population.

"China's HIV infections have been linked to high-risk behavior. But now, sex work is moving it toward the general population," WHO China representative Henk Bekedam told reporters at a conference announcing the new figures.

By the end of last year, China had an estimated 650,000 people living with AIDS/HIV, 75,000 of whom had full-blown AIDS, according to the study.

The World Health Organization, China's Ministry of Health and the United Nations' AIDS agency jointly produced the study, an update on an earlier assessment of the AIDS epidemic in China in 2003. Bekedam said that the new estimated infections, roughly 200 a day, showed the situation in China was "more serious than we thought." Most of the new cases were injecting drug users and sex workers and their clients, but there was a growing number of infected pregnant mothers and spouses of sex workers' clients, the report said. While a ban on the sale of blood in the late 1990s reduced the number of infections through transfusions, Bekedam said unprotected sex was becoming the new means for the virus' spread.

He called for greater HIV/AIDS awareness campaigns in China, and more free testing and treatment for HIV-positive people. China had previously estimated in 2003 that 840,000 people were HIV-positive and 84,000 people had full-blown AIDS.

The lower numbers released Wednesday do not mean the situation is less critical, said Joel Rehnstrom, UNAIDS China country coordinator. Most of the 2003 data came from a small number of areas where there was already a high prevalence of HIV/AIDS, he said.

He said there were now better data collection methods and more in-depth knowledge about the most at-risk populations, including intravenous drug users, sex workers and their clients, which meant the new estimate was more accurate.

The new study also said the number of people previously thought to have contracted HIV through blood transfusions or blood sales was vastly overestimated, which had skewed the 2003 figures somewhat. UNAIDS had estimated up to 10 million could be infected by 2010 without more aggressive prevention measures, but Bekedam said that scenario was unlikely to materialize.

"At the time, it was a commitment by China that unless action was taken it might become 10 million ... but now we don't believe that even in the worst-case scenario this is realistic," he said. China's plan to keep the number of HIV-infected people under 1.5 million is a "good challenge," Bekedam said.

AIDS activists have criticized Chinese authorities for being slow to admit the extent of the disease in the country, but in recent years Beijing has become increasingly open about its epidemic. Bekedam said that the biggest challenge facing China will be removing the stigma of HIV/AIDS that has prevented people from being tested or seeking treatment.

Free testing and counseling for those who seek it and free anti-retroviral treatment for the poor have been offered. However, people demanding better treatment and care are still often arrested or harassed by authorities, reports the AP. N.U.