China's government calls the deadly AIDS virus an epidemic that has now spread across all 31 provinces and regions of the country. Top health officials say the number of reported cases is up sharply, and admit the real toll is probably far higher.
Vice Minister of Health Yin Dakui says experts estimate that more than 600,000 Chinese are infected with the deadly virus that causes AIDS, and the number is growing. "Like many other countries in this world, China is also faced with a very serious epidemic of HIV/AIDS," he said.
Mr. Yin told reporters Thursday that ignorance, even among officials, contributed to the spread of the disease across China. "In some particular regions, some leaders and also the general public have not fully realized the hidden dangers of the large scale epidemic of HIV/AIDS as well as the harm it may bring about to the local social development," he said.
While there is no cure for AIDS, Chinese officials say a major educational program can stem the spread of the deadly disease. Mr. Yin says currently, only a minority of Chinese people, even the ones in high-risk groups like injection drug users, know enough about AIDS to avoid getting the infection.
To fix that problem, officials showed off slick brochures that explain in Chinese that AIDS is spread by having sex, sharing dirty drug needles, or getting a blood transfusion from an infected person.
The budget for AIDS education and prevention is a bit more than $12 million, which is not a lot for a program that has to reach China's 1.3 billion people.
Mr. Yin says millions more dollars are set aside to improve China's flawed system for collecting blood for medical uses. Major mistakes in procedure and sanitation are blamed for spreading the AIDS virus to tens of thousands of blood sellers living in China's poverty-stricken central provinces.
Chinese officials say new research shows that the rate of new infections from illegal blood sales is down. But they are very worried that the rising incidence of injection drug use and what they call a "major epidemic" of sexually transmitted diseases will infect many more people.