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China Marks World AIDS Day

Passerby pick up condoms during an AIDS awareness event held by local community on the World AIDS Dayin Shanghai, China. December 1, 2011.

Passerby pick up condoms during an AIDS awareness event held by local community on the World AIDS Dayin Shanghai, China. December 1, 2011.

Chinese authorities are openly marking World AIDS Day this year, but the government remains sensitive to independent groups that try to combat the spread of the disease.

China more open about AIDS epidemic

Compared with a decade ago when China was highly secretive about its AIDS epidemic, World Aids Day has become a major highlight of the Communist Party's health awareness drive.

State media have been covering the day with lengthy editorials and statistics which accompany reports about the government's plans to fight the spread of AIDS in its flagship five-year plan.

The Ministry of Health and UNAIDS estimate about 780,000 people will be living with HIV/AIDS in China by the end of this year. That means about 40,000 people became infected in the past year.

Most new infections results from sex

The statistics indicate nearly 82 percent of infections resulted from sex.

Guy Taylor is a Program Associate with the UNAIDS office in China. He says around a third of those new infections are from homosexual transmissions. "There are some worrying trends in the epidemic, particularly the rapid growth of the high levels of prevalence amounts of men who have sex with men. Nationwide it is around five percent, which is 90 times higher than the prevalence among the general population,” he noted.

He says that while that overall trend is worrying, there are isolated places where the infection rates are even higher. "In some cities it is one in five," Taylor said. "Or more than one in five."

AIDS, breaking down the social sigma

Taylor says other countries are suffering a similar rise among gay men. But discrimination and ignorance about the disease means many of those infected men fail to have tests.

He says one of the best ways to break down the social stigma of the disease in China and encourage more people to undergo tests and treatment is at independent clinics and advice centers.

"We think it important in China to strengthen participation of community based organizations, as they can represent these communities and understand their needs more. These affected populations are less reluctant to come into contact with them because they trust them and they maybe understand them better," Taylor stated.

Despite its efforts to combat the disease, Beijing is still highly sensitive about AIDS as well as the influence of independent groups that cater to the afflicted.

Speaking out too loudly about the government's controversial AIDS policy in China can result in intimidation, arrest and disappearance.

Non-government organizations are routinely banned or restricted and activists locked up, including Hu Jia, who was jailed for three and half years for speaking out.

Activists Wan Yanhai and elderly campaigner Gao Yaojie both suffered intimidation from the Chinese government and now live in exile in the United States

Hu, who was released from jail in June, was last week prevented from handing over a compensation claim to the health ministry on behalf of an AIDS patient who became inflected via a blood transfusion.

Poor screening measures at hospitals and clinics means thousands of Chinese contract AIDS when they give or receive blood.