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International Business Leaders Fear AIDS Explosion in China - 2003-11-06

International business leaders are urging China's government to head off what some fear may be an explosion of AIDS cases in the world's most populous country. Participants at the World Economic Forum in Beijing say China's government should allow private businesses to lead the fight against the spread of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

Professor John Ruggie, director of Harvard University's Center for Business and Government, said that as China's economy grows, so does the potential for the spread of the disease. He said the government should open the door for businesses, both multi-national and domestic, to use their expanding influence to tackle the disease.

"The government needs to do that because it alone does not have the capacity to respond," says Mr. Ruggie. "This is too big of a problem, and therefore, it needs to actively invite and encourage all parts of society, including Chinese firms, to take an active approach to helping to deal with the crisis."

With less than one percent of its population infected with HIV, China's infection rate is roughly what it was in South Africa in 1990. AIDS experts warn that if adequate measures are not taken now, China could go the way of South Africa, where the infection rate has soared to at least 25 percent, and has overwhelmed the government's ability to help AIDS patients.

Dr. Peter Piot, the head of the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS, warns that a rising infection rate would have grave economic consequences for China. "The choice is very clear. It's either act now or pay later," he says. "Act now and prevent millions of Chinese from being infected or deal with it five or 10 years from now, when the cost of treatment, the cost for business and for individuals will be much higher. That's why this is such an important issue for the government and for business to tackle now, before there is a big problem."

The experts are urging the Chinese government to allow businesses to do more to educate people, especially in the impoverished rural areas of western and central China where infection rates are higher.

In discussions with the Chinese government at the forum, business leaders called for the government to allow private companies to use their marketing power and resources to educate employees and consumers about the disease.

The two-day business summit, which opened Thursday, brings together scores of politicians, business leaders and private organizations to discuss cooperation between the world business community and China.