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China Not Adequately Dealing with AIDS, Policy Analyst Says - 2002-09-13

A group of policy experts met on Capitol Hill Monday to discuss an AIDS epidemic in China a problem they say Beijing has been too slow to acknowledge.

It was just last week that China's Health Ministry revised the estimated number of people in the country infected with the AIDS virus from 850,000 to one million.

But the experts who gathered on Capitol Hill believe the figure to be much higher. They argue that local officials are avoiding testing high-risk people in an effort to meet targets for holding down the number of reported cases.

Dr. Don des Jarlais of Beth Israel Medical Center in New York is working with non-governmental organizations in China to fight the deadly disease there.

"There is a tendency in China to see HIV as a problem of the socially-marginalized and of small, weak countries," Dr. Jarlais said.

A recent United Nations report estimated that 1.2 million people in China have AIDS, and that 10 million could be infected by the end of the decade. China has a population of 1.3 billion.

Joan Kaufman, a visiting scholar at Harvard Law School, says Chinese officials have been slow to recognize the threat posed by AIDS.

"There is a lack of appreciation at the national government level about what this epidemic, potentially, is going to do, to economic and social development in China," Ms. Kaufman said.

Ms. Kaufman says public education and prevention programs dealing with aids are woefully inadequate in China.

Another expert, Bates Gill of the Center for Strategic and International Studies here in Washington, says AIDS victims are stigmatized in China a situation that makes dealing with the epidemic all the more difficult.

"If persons are stigmatized, criminalized, harassed, of course they are going to be far less likely to self-report or voluntarily submit to HIV testing, which is only likely going to drive the problem further underground," Mr. Gill said.

Chinese Health Ministry officials say the government has begun efforts to reduce the cost of treatment for AIDS victims, most of whom already live in poverty.

China recently began treating patients with a domestically produced version of the anti-AIDS drug known as AZT that costs far less than the imported original.

But Mr. Gill argues that treatment including the manufacturing of the medicines, their distribution, and proper training of local doctors is not as cost-effective as prevention.

"I think money today in China would be much more wisely spent on prevention, awareness, education so you do not get the disease in the first place," he said.

Mr. Gill called on U.S. officials to work with their Chinese counterparts to promote AIDS awareness and prevention in China. He said he hoped the issue would be high on the agenda when President Bush meets Chinese President Jiang Zemin next month in Crawford, Texas.