UN helps China become more open on AIDS

July 30th, 2008 - 9:58 am ICT by IANS  

A file-photo of Shaan
Beijing, July 30 (DPA) As China’s economic powerhouse hums with strong growth and preparations for the Olympics in August, the subject of AIDS is no longer taboo, and there are signs the government is taking more initiative than ever. Under pressure from the United Nations, the government has become more open about AIDS. President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao have made efforts to reach out, making televised visits to people living with HIV/AIDS in recent years.

In its latest report in November, the health ministry warned that the spread of HIV/AIDS in China continues to be driven by “high-risk behaviour within particular sub-populations”.

The government announced in November its intention to lift the entry ban on foreigners with HIV, although it has still not done so.

Nonetheless, UNAIDS has been allowed to train some 5,500 Olympics volunteers at 12 Chinese universities.

It produced information packs on HIV for another 100,000 Olympics volunteers, coaching some people living with HIV to act as trainers and public speakers for the programme.

“We hope that through this training, Olympics volunteers, as ambassadors for Beijing citizens, will be better prepared to inclusively welcome all groups of people to Beijing during the games, especially those living with HIV,” said Subinay Nandy, United Nations Development Programme’s country director for China.

“It is our hope that Olympics volunteers will share this knowledge and look for opportunities to continue volunteering on important development issues such as raising awareness of HIV,” Nandy said.

Most HIV infections in China are believed to be still undiagnosed because of ignorance, fear, poverty and other factors.

“Many young people do not have the right information on AIDS, fuelling false fears, stigma and discrimination,” Bernhard Schwartlaender, UNAIDS coordinator in China, said recently.

“This is bad in itself, but also hampers HIV prevention work,” Schwartlaender said at the launch of the UNAIDS programme to train Olympic volunteers last month.

He held hope, however, that the training programme would have a ripple effect in spreading good information.

Engaging some of China’s most capable young people and making them the messengers of positive and correct knowledge on HIV can help dispel inaccurate myths and break down the stigma and discrimination against people affected by HIV, he said.

There’s no doubt that infections are on the rise, with a near-even divide between sexual transmission and spreading through intravenous drug use.

But UN experts have said the increases do not necessarily reflect a jump in new HIV/AIDS infections in China. The experts argue that recent drives to test more members of vulnerable groups may be an important factor behind the rise in reported cases.

For 2007, China’s health ministry reported a rise of about 22 percent in confirmed HIV infections, raising its estimated number of infections to 700,000 after an initial estimate of 650,000.

Sexual transmission is now the main mode for the spread of HIV, with an estimated 45 percent of new infections through heterosexual transmission, the ministry said in a statement.

An estimated 42 percent of new infections were through intravenous drug use and 12 percent were through homosexual transmission. About 71 percent of those currently infected were men, it said.

“Currently, China’s HIV epidemic remains one of low prevalence overall, but with pockets of high infection among specific sub-populations and in some localities,” the ministry said.

“The epidemic continues to expand, but the rate is slowing.”

The government says 22,205 people had died from AIDS in China since it reported its first case in 1985.

Health officials said the virus was spreading from high-risk groups to the general population because of unsafe sex and the migration of people already infected.

During the 1990s, hundreds of thousands of poor rural residents were infected with HIV through blood-selling schemes in Henan, Hubei, Shaanxi and other central provinces.

Gao Yaojie led the way in exposing a scandal of mass HIV infections through government-run or illegal blood-selling schemes in Henan, and how local officials covered up the problem, content to leave infected people to their fate.

Gao has fought since the late 1990s to secure drugs and money for HIV-infected people in her home province.

But in a sign of the continuing reticence of the government to allow activists and non-governmental organizations to lead the fight, last year Gao was initially kept under house arrest to prevent her from travelling to the US.

A last-minute switch allowed her to collect an award from a US-based AIDS group.

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