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Thursday, 27 June, 2002, 16:14 GMT 17:14 UK
China facing Aids 'time bomb'
Chinese woman looks at a display at a sex education exhibition in Beijing
China faces huge obstacles teaching safe sex
China is heading for an Aids epidemic of catastrophic proportions unless it takes drastic action, the United Nations has warned.

We are now witnessing the unfolding of an Aids epidemic of proportions beyond belief

A report by the UN Programme on Aids (UNAids) estimates that by the end of last year up to 1.5m people in China were infected with HIV, the virus that causes Aids.

That is up from 500,000 in 1999 and the agency says unless rapid measures are taken, the number of infected people in China could hit 10m by 2010.

Aids sufferer Yu Daguan shows the lesions on his back, symptoms of the disease
Illegal blood banks are still spreading the disease
The UN says the Chinese Government has not done enough to tackle the problem despite pledges last year.

After state media exposed the rampant spread of HIV in rural Henan province, where poor farmers contracted the virus from selling plasma to illegal blood banks, the government promised to improve the screening of blood.

While illegal blood sales are still one of the most frequent modes of transmission, the spread of HIV is also gaining momentum through sexual intercourse, both heterosexual and homosexual.

"The danger now is that it's on the verge of spreading to the general population," the UN says.

However, the national infection rate is still far lower than on the African continent - the world's worst-hit region.

The UN calls on China to do more to promote safe sex and the use of sterile needles in injections.

According to the report, many people in China do not know how the disease is spread, wrongly thinking it can be contracted through mosquito bites or shaking hands.

China's response to the menace so far has been strictly medical with the Ministry of Health placed almost solely in charge.

But UNAids warns that this cannot go on.

The UN urges China's political leaders to take the lead by publicly espousing safe sex.

However, as BBC correspondent Rupert Wingfield-Hayes reports from Beijing, in China's conservative culture, where even talking about sex is taboo, there are huge obstacles to be overcome.

Prejudice and ignorance are compounded by the severe lack of experienced doctors and health centres equipped to deal with HIV/Aids.

"China is on the verge of a catastrophe that could result in unimaginable human suffering, economic loss and social devastation," the UNAids report says.

"We are now witnessing the unfolding of an HIV/Aids epidemic of proportions beyond belief."

The BBC's Rupert Wingfield-Hayes
"Now Aids is breaking out of the high-risk groups"
HIV-Aids manager for the Red Cross, Bernard Gardiner
"The virus exploits existing social and economic vulnerabilities"

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