As China gets ready to observe World AIDS day, United Nations experts say the virus will kill millions more Chinese unless the government and health officials take prompt and powerful action. Health experts say Beijing has taken steps in the right direction, but still faces a huge task to keep an AIDS epidemic from ravaging the world's most populous nation.
China's recent first-ever national conference on AIDS opened with a pop music concert in a hall with thousands of doctors, researchers and other people concerned about the deadly AIDS epidemic.
The head of the United Nation's Children's Fund for East Asia says the public nature of the event is an important sign that Chinese central government officials understand how serious the AIDS epidemic is in this country.
Until very recently, China seemed bent on covering up the AIDS problem. The government blocked journalists' attempts to meet with AIDS victims, harassed people trying to teach others how to protect themselves from the deadly disease, and denied a Chinese doctor permission to go overseas to accept an award for her pioneering work in the AIDS fight.
The U.N.'s Mher Khan says that is changing. "For me it was very important to see the whole issue of breaking the silence, which is a very major issue in every single country that addresses the issues of HIV/AIDS, has now been addressed in China," Mher Khan says.
Ms. Khan says she is impressed that China has set aside millions of dollars to improve the country's blood collection system. Some blood-buying agencies have used horribly unsanitary collection methods which infected thousands of people with HIV, the deadly virus that causes AIDS.
She says governments in other nations, even ones like Thailand that have done a good job fighting the killer AIDS epidemic, generally take years to recognize the severity of the problem and mobilize an effective nationwide response. She says China has at least started down the road.
Edwin Judd, who heads U.N. anti-AIDS efforts in China, says there is no time to waste. "The epidemic is winning the race. The epidemic is spreading faster than the responses to it," Mr. Judd says.
The official Chinese government figures show less than 30,000 Chinese suffering from HIV and AIDS. But most experts and some Chinese officials say that number is only a tiny fraction of the real toll. "But the actual estimated number of cases, we believe is somewhere between 600,000 and 1.5 million," Mr. Judd says. "What is very alarming in recent years is the rate of increase. We think the cases are increasing at about 25 or 30 percent a year."
Mr. Judd says China's media and schools are beginning to address the AIDS issue with new openness, and U.N. officials are beginning to work with provincial officials in China to design programs to fight the epidemic. But he says much more needs to be done, and soon. "China has an opportunity to avert a major epidemic, but it must take more action quickly or else we face the threat in China of up to 10 million cases of HIV/AIDS by the year 2010, unless these strong interventions are taken," he says.
But he says even if China could stop the spread of AIDS, the country still faces a huge problem treating people already infected with the lethal disease. He says the United Nations is working with Chinese officials to provide better medical treatment for those who are sick, and better community resources to help their families.
They are also working to end the ignorance and fear of the disease that promoted discrimination against its victims and hampered the fight against AIDS.
China's Red Cross is also working to fight AIDS, ignorance and discrimination.
Red Cross spokesman Xiao Xing says his agency will mark World AIDS Day by gathering hundreds of young volunteers to launch 1,500 balloons carrying AIDS education messages. Some of those messages urge people not to shun their neighbors who are afflicted with the disease.