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AIDS Reaching Epidemic Proportions in China - 2002-09-06

China is admitting that AIDS is approaching epidemic proportions and has increased spending to fight the disease. At the same time, authorities continue to deny any knowledge about a missing AIDS activist, despite reports he was detained after the government banned his counseling group.

China's health ministry says the country is "on the verge of an epidemic" of AIDS and HIV infection, and unless urgent action is taken to reverse the trend, more than 10-million Chinese could be infected with the virus by the end of the decade.

Qi Xiaoqiu, head of disease control at the health ministry, told reporters Friday that almost one million people in China are now infected with HIV. Mr. Qi said that to prevent a broader epidemic, the government has raised spending on AIDS prevention to $12-million this year, six times higher than last year's amount.

Mr. Qi said it is difficult for Beijing to determine the real number of AIDS cases in China, because local governments often refuse to compile figures on the disease, and patients are reluctant to admit they are infected.

Mr. Qi singled out impoverished Henan Province in central China as especially hard hit by the disease. He said that in one county of Henan alone, 10,000 people have been infected by HIV because of sales of tainted blood, and 1,000 have already died.

Friday's news conference was unusual in its candor about the extent of AIDS in China. But despite the government's increasing openness on the issue, officials still refuse to reveal anything about the apparent detention of China's most prominent AIDS activist, Wan Yanhai.

Human rights groups say Mr. Wan was detained in Beijing on August 24, soon after the group he founded, the Aizhi Action Project, was shut down by the government. Mr. Wan reportedly angered the authorities by posting on his Web site an internal document by health officials in Henan, detailing the extent of the AIDS epidemic there. The New York group Human Rights in China released a statement Friday saying Mr. Wan is thought to be under investigation for allegedly revealing state secrets. The group called for his immediate release.

In Friday's briefing, Mr. Qi refused to provide any information about Mr. Wan's whereabouts. Mr. Qi said only that the government welcomes all AIDS-related research, but that any group carrying out research must be officially registered.