China tries to halt march of Aids

China's south-western province of Yunnan will set up Aids quarantine checkpoints along its borders with South-East Asia in an attempt to stop the increase of HIV infection in the worst afflicted part of the country.

However, the idea of a disease-prevention belt along its borders with Vietnam, Laos and Burma appears to be a throw-back to Peking's much-criticised view that Aids is a foreign evil rather than a problem which China must address as a domestic issue.

There are about 2,500 official cases of HIV infection in China, but many experts believe the real number is nearer 100,000. Yunnan province, which has a serious heroin-addiction and drug-trafficking problem because of its proximity to the Golden Triangle opium-growing countries, accounts for more than three-quarters of the official number.

Yesterday, it was announced that the Yunnan provincial government would spend about 500m yuan (pounds 40m) to set up infectious-disease checkpoints and protection belts at six crossing points along the 2,500-mile border.

The province would also improve grassroots prevention programmes to control diseases including Aids, cholera and leprosy, said Yang Chaobin, of the provincial health department.

There were no details as to how the checkpoints would work, and the booming border trade across these very porous borders will present a considerable challenge to the plan. Nor is it clear what the checkpoints will actually check. Yunnan's border towns do not have the resources for large-scale testing, and any requirement that travellers carry Aids-test certificates would seem both impractical and vulnerable to forgeries. Given the ease with which people manage to smuggle drugs into Yunnan, the idea of policing the whole border is unrealistic.

China has traditionally viewed Aids as a "foreign problem". Even now, any foreigner who wants to live in China must first present a very recent Aids test certificate. Chinese returning from living abroad must similarly be tested.

It is only over the past year that Chinese authorities have started to be more open about the need for Aids education and public-health measures, and to treat Aids as a potential Chinese problem. The country's first national Aids education and publicity campaign was launched only last November, on World Aids Day. Along with the economic boom of the past decade, China has also experienced a surge in the number of drug addicts, fuelling what in other Asian countries has been the first wave of HIV infection.

While most Chinese people tend to be extremely reticent when talking about sex, the past 10 years has also seen a boom in prostitution, especially in the cities and fast-growing coastal areas. This has been true at all levels of society.

China's strict family-planning rules mean that many women rely on IUDs for contraception, and condoms are not popular with Chinese men, further increasing the possibility of HIV infection.

China's vast floating population of 90 million also adds to the problem in organising Aids education.

Every year millions of farmers leave behind their wives and children and head for the construction sites of China's cities, out of the clutches of the authorities, and often into the arms of prostitutes.