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China admits that cases of HIV/Aids have risen 45 per cent

New cases of HIV/Aids in China soared by 45 per cent last year compared with 2006, the Health Ministry in Beijing has revealed. The staggering rise was put down to changing social attitudes and an improvement in data collection.

The government had said late last year that 700,000 people were living with the virus, an increase from an earlier estimate of 650,000. The year before, China lowered its estimate to 650,000 from 840,000, despite warnings from international experts that the disease was spreading due to ignorance and because many people were too afraid or too poor to seek help.

The ministry gave few details about the large percentage rise in sexually transmitted diseases or those passed through the blood. There was also a sharp rise of 24 per cent in syphilis cases.

"It's been hard over the years to discover the number of Aids patients because of the social stigma," a ministry spokesman said. The disease is spreading fast in a country where information about Aids has long been suppressed. For many years, Chinese would say HIV/Aids was a disease that affected foreigners, and could be passed through shaking hands or sharing chopsticks.

The government has finally acknowledged that it faces a battle in resolving the rise in HIV/Aids infections. The disease is now mainly sexually transmitted; before, it had been mostly caused by intravenous drug use.

The United Nations has warned that China could have 10 million cases of HIV by 2010 unless it takes steps to educate the public and fight the epidemic.

A major advance in breaking down the stigma attached to HIV/Aids came in 2003 when Premier Wen Jiabao became China's first senior leader to publicly shake hands with Aids patients, marking a significant change in government policy on the disease. President Hu Jintao has also been photographed embracing Aids patients.

As well as the traditional routes of spreading HIV/Aids, such as prostitution and intravenous drug use, the disease in China has been spread by unsanitary, uncontrolled blood banks that travelled rural areas buying blood. About 70,000 people had been infected by contaminated transfusions.

The Health Ministry survey also showed that even among better-educated city dwellers, nearly 60 per cent were "nervous" to have public contact with HIV-positive people.

Against this kind of background, changing attitudes is an uphill battle, and the Health Ministry has come up with imaginative ways to deal with the problem. It has introduced a major TV campaign to promote condom use, with advertisements produced by the Oscar-winning Aids documentary maker, Ruby Yang. This is a significant advance in a country where talking about sex remains taboo.

China's 200 million migrant workers are among the high-risk groups. Building workers can now attend lectures on the ways HIV/Aids is spread and the importance of condom use.

"I came to know that Aids was not a disease exclusively belonging to sexually active Westerners," Chen Wei, 28, told the People's Daily after a session in the training school on a building site in Changsha in Hunan province.

In 2006, the government issued new rules. Now no organisation or individual is allowed to discriminate against Aids patients or their families, and Aids patients will be entitled to free treatment.

The Health Ministry data also showed scarlet fever and measles cases rose in 2007, though other diseases declined. There was just one death from plague last year, and none from cholera.