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US Doctor Warns AIDS Epidemic Could 'Explode' in China - 2001-08-30

The doctor who heads U.S. efforts to stop the deadly AIDS virus says the epidemic could "explode" in China unless health experts and government ministries work together." Doctor Helene Gayle says time is short, but it is not too late to avert what she called a "global catastrophe."

Dr. Helene Gayle says China's AIDS epidemic may be on the verge of moving out of relatively small, high-risk groups and into the mainstream of Chinese society.

Until recently, most Chinese people infected with HIV, the killer virus that causes AIDS, were prostitutes, injection drug users, homosexuals, or people who donated blood under unsanitary conditions.

But Doctor Gayle, who heads AIDS prevention efforts at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, says Chinese health experts now say the virus is being transmitted more and more often by heterosexual sex, and so threatens a much larger segment of Chinese society. "If, in fact, there is not a real mobilization around halting sexual spread, then the potential for generalized epidemic, an explosive transmission in this country is really great," she says.

A team of top U.S. AIDS experts have been visiting China, talking to Chinese and foreign health experts, government officials and others about the rapidly growing epidemic of HIV in China, and cooperative ventures that might slow the deadly disease. "That assessment was undertaken about a month ago to begin to explore ways the U.S. Government, primarily CDC (The Centers for Disease Control) could work to collaborate on the situation of HIV here in this country," says Dr. Gayle.

Over several weeks, the team visited four of China's 31 provinces and met officials in Beijing, where Doctor Gayle says there is a strong and growing awareness in China about the seriousness of the AIDS problem.

She says discussions are still at an early stage, but the two sides might work out ways to improve AIDS prevention and education efforts and gather more accurate statistics on the number of people stricken by the disease.

Dr. Gayle says her group can also share expertise on caring for AIDS victims. "This is a country that does not have a lot of experience in caring for people with HIV," she says. "Many people recognize that there will be many more people very soon who have HIV infection and a very rapid and urgent need for information on how to take care of the needs currently infected in this country with HIV and those who will become sick."

The American doctors called their meetings in China "very productive," and said there appears to be interest in moving ahead with collaborative efforts.

But Dr. Gayle warns, without strong, effective action, in the next two or three years, the number of Chinese AIDS victims could grow from hundreds-of-thousands today to tens-of-millions.