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China Signals Big Changes in AIDS Programs - 2002-12-01

China's government, long criticized for ignoring the AIDS epidemic, launched an awareness and education campaign on Sunday, World AIDS Day, designed to fight the deadly disease.

During an elaborate ceremony in China's Great Hall of the People, officials told an audience of AIDS prevention workers that they are sending one million students into the countryside over the next year to spread the word about AIDS prevention, and to urge people not to discriminate against sufferers.

Holding the ceremony in the Great Hall, the center of Chinese political life, is a symbol of a big change in official attitudes toward the disease. Until now, government officials detained journalists who tried to report on the epidemic. They harassed even doctors who tried to tell Chinese people how to protect themselves from the deadly virus.

Now, state television plans to show programs that tell Chinese they can reduce their risk of AIDS by using a condom during sex, and by not sharing needles if they inject illegal drugs.

China's Vice Minister of Health, Ma Xiaowei said there are already one million Chinese infected with the deadly virus that causes AIDS.

Mr. Ma said preventive measures may be able to keep the number of AIDS infected people in China at 10 million or less by 2010.

Homosexual men, drug users and prostitutes are all at high risk for AIDS. Worried experts say the disease may be about to move out of these high-risk groups and into the mainstream of Chinese life.

AIDS is incurable, but expensive treatments can prolong the lives of its victims. The drug treatments cost far more than patients in developing countries like China can afford. Experts say that makes programs like China's new effort to educate people on how to avoid infections in the first place vitally important.