Risky Behavior Primary Cause of New HIV Infections in China

Sex has overtaken drug use as the main cause of HIV infections in China, leading to worries the disease may spread outside high-risk groups and into the general population, according to experts and a report released Thursday.

BY Matthew Van Atta

November 30 2007 1:00 AM ET

Sex has overtaken
drug use as the main cause of HIV infections in China,
leading to worries the disease may spread outside high-risk
groups and into the general population, according to
experts and a report released Thursday.

There were an
estimated 50,000 new cases of HIV in 2007, bringing the
total to 700,000 people living with the virus in China,
according to the report, issued jointly by UNAIDS
and a committee of the State Council, China's Cabinet.

Despite a fall in
the rate of new cases from when data was last collected
in 2005, infections were still spreading, and sex, not
intravenous drug use, was now the main form of
transmission, Chinese Minister of Health Chen Zhu said
at a news conference.

''China's HIV
epidemic remains one of low prevalence overall but with
pockets of high infection among specific subpopulations,''
he said. ''A number of core challenges remain.''

Prostitutes and
gay men were singled out for risky behavior that was
contributing to most of the new cases, Chen said. Some 60%
of prostitutes do not regularly use condoms, according
to the report, which was to be officially released
Saturday to coincide with World AIDS Day.

New cases were
rising among these groups. Beijing must ensure
transmission from high-risk populations, ''can be stopped
and held down, because there is substantial potential
for spreading,'' said Bernhard Schwartlander, country
coordinator for UNAIDS in China.

The current rate
of infection was less than 1% of China's overall
population, but as many as 50 million others are at risk now
that the main form of transmission was sex, he said.

Prostitution is
widespread in China, even though it is officially
illegal. Raising concerns are the many migrant workers who
visit brothels, exposing themselves, their spouses,
and other partners to infection.

HIV gained a
foothold in China largely due to unsanitary blood
plasma-buying schemes and tainted transfusions in hospitals.
Chen told reporters Thursday that these practices had
been ''effectively contained,'' but he did not
elaborate.

After years of
denying that AIDS was a problem, Chinese leaders have
shifted gears dramatically in recent years, confronting the
disease more openly and promising anonymous testing,
free treatment for the poor, and a ban on
discrimination against people with the virus.

The topic,
however, still remains very sensitive, and authorities
regularly crack down on activists and patients seeking more
support and rights.

Stigma associated
with HIV/AIDS and discrimination against people with
the disease remains high in some communities and workplaces,
the report said. This leads to high-risk people not
getting testing or admitting they have HIV, thus
aiding its spread, the report said.

Chen welcomed the
work of civil groups and mass organizations that have
reached out to those with HIV/AIDS. Celebrity awareness of
the disease has also helped reduce stigma and increase
awareness, he said.

''The report
shows how far the government has come in responding to
HIV,'' said Ed Settle, HIV/AIDS Program Manager for UNDP
China.

''They've come to
the realization that high risk groups need more
attention and they recognize that civil society groups have
more of a role in reaching out to the more
vulnerable.''

But many
organizations have run into difficulties getting proper
legal registration, the report noted. China has long
been wary of NGOs, fearing they might be acting as
agents for foreign governments or encouraging defiance
of the Communist Party.

The number of
officially reported HIV cases in China remained only
223,501 -- far lower than the estimated total, probably in
part because of reluctance to seek testing. The figure
includes those who developed AIDS and those who died
from the disease.

In 2004, China
scaled back the estimated number of people infected with
HIV from nearly 1 million to 840,000, and then further
lowered the figure to 650,000 in 2005.

Experts have said
the figures are probably accurate because they are in
line with a change in the way data are collected.

Global health
officials said earlier this month that the estimated number
of people infected with HIV worldwide fell from almost 40
million last year to about 33.2 million this year, the
result of a different methodology which shows that the
AIDS pandemic is losing momentum.

The old numbers
were largely based on how many infected pregnant women
were at prenatal clinics as well as projecting the AIDS
rates of certain high-risk groups like drug users to
the entire population at risk. Officials said those
figures were flawed, and are now incorporating more
data such as national household surveys. (AP)

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