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Chinese PM's Visit to AIDS Patients Signals Policy Change

For years, China's top leaders have been criticized for doing little to address a growing AIDS epidemic in their country.

Observers say Monday's visit was the first a Chinese prime minister has made to AIDS patients. In an apparent effort to break the stigma surrounding the disease and myths about how it is spread, Wen Jiabao shook hands with the patients.

The meeting drew praise from international AIDS experts in China. Joel Rehnstrom is the country coordinator for the U.N. AIDS agency in Beijing.

"It's something that probably a year or two ago would have been inconceivable, considering the denial and stigma associated in China for many, many years," he said.

Mr. Rehnstrom and others said they hope this is the beginning of an open and aggressive response to HIV and AIDS in China. For years, Beijing denied there was an AIDS problem in the country.

International AIDS advocates warn that new social freedoms that have accompanied China's explosive economic growth may send the HIV infection rate skyrocketing in the world's most populous country.

A series of TV commercials recently introduced by the Chinese government seek to avert a major epidemic.

One commercial says more than 400,000 cases of AIDS infection are registered in China. It instructs viewers to prevent infection by avoiding casual sex and sharing needles.

The information is new to many Chinese, especially in rural areas, who have had little or no access to facts on the disease. Many people still believe that AIDS can be spread by casual contact, such as a handshake.

The government on Monday said the actual number of full-blown AIDS cases may be double what has been reported. Chinese officials estimate 840,000 people are HIV positive. International AIDS groups and health experts say even that number is probably low.

World Health Organization officials speaking in Beijing Monday said that regardless of the number, the important thing is that China's government appears to be responding to the epidemic.

WHO officials said they have received a commitment from China's health ministry to kick off what they described as a "People's War" to raise AIDS awareness.