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Last Updated: Thursday, 8 April, 2004, 08:56 GMT 09:56 UK
China sounds alarm on Aids
Yu Daguan, an Aids sufferer in Dongguan village, in China's central Henan province
China hid a blood scandal in the 90s which infected entire villages
China's government has called for an increased effort to stop the spread of HIV/Aids, warning of severe punishment for any attempt at a cover-up.

Health Minister Wu Yi told officials the epidemic was at a critical point where it could spread from high-risk groups to the wider public.

China admits to having more than 800,000 cases of HIV/Aids, but experts say the real figure could be higher.

The UN believes at least 10 million Chinese could be HIV positive by 2010.

"We can completely contain the momentum if we take it seriously. Otherwise, we will lose this best, fleeting opportunity," Ms Wu told regional health officials at a conference on HIV/Aids in Beijing.

"It must be reported timely and faithfully. And any people who intend to hide the epidemic should take responsibility and will be severely punished," the China Daily quoted the minister as saying.

A Chinese girl walks in front of Aids posters in Beijing
The majority of Chinese still understand little about Aids

This emphasis on openness suggests China has learned lessons from the Sars (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) crisis it suffered last year, which was worsened by an initial attempt by the authorities to suppress news of the disease, preventing adequate prevention measures.

China also announced on Thursday the establishment of its first formal research centre on Aids, in Shanghai.

""AIDS is accelerating its spread in China at a horrible speed of 30-40% every year. It is not only a medical issue but a serious social one," said its director, Yan Shaogang.

Ms Wu asked local officials to improve education, fight illegal blood sales, circulate condoms and clean needles, and step up surveillance of the disease.

A scandal of illegal blood selling operations in central Henan province in the mid-90s infected tens of thousands of people with HIV, which the Chinese authorities went to great lengths to hide.

In areas where Aids is rife, local government officials sometimes still try to cover up the extent of the problem, fearful that it could have an impact on inward investment.

When it comes to public education, there is still a long way to go.

A survey released last year indicated that one in four Chinese in the countryside have never heard of Aids, and only one in five people surveyed knew that HIV could be transmitted through sex.


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