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Wednesday, 5 April, 2000, 20:40 GMT 21:40 UK
China Aids warning

By Duncan Hewitt in Beijing

A senior leader in China is calling for the fight against Aids in the country to be made a national priority.

Deputy prime minister and Politburo member Li Lanqing told a conference in Beijing that government should spend more time and money on an issue that was he said vital to the fate of China.

Officials said the number of registered HIV cases grew 30% last year, along with a big growth in sexually-transmitted diseases.

Chinese health experts put current estimates for the total number with HIV at 500,000.

Big underestimate

The deputy prime minister's concern and alarmist newspaper headlines reflect how worried officials are about the spread of the disease.

Confirmed cases of HIV remain proportionately low at just over 17,000 - but experts believe that is a massive underestimate.

In the past, officials took some comfort in the fact that the spread of HIV through sexual contact was relatively limited, with almost 75% of infections resulting from intravenous drug use.

Now experts warn that a dramatic rise in sexually-transmitted diseases could make the spread of HIV and Aids even harder to control.

The number of cases of such diseases has doubled in the last two years to more than 800,000 and15% of HIV carriers are women.

Education

Li Lanqing said China must focus on prevention and spreading the message to high-risk groups.

He called for increased spending by central and local governments to avoid what he called a far higher cost in future.

Despite attempts to break down traditional taboos by installing condom-vending machines in streets and colleges, China's first national TV announcement promoting condom use was banned by advertising authorities a day after it was launched last year.

The World Health Organisation has predicted that without swift action China could have 10 million HIV infections by the end of this decade.

Officials have acknowledged that they face a major challenge in changing attitudes in rural areas, where state media say the majority of cases are.

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See also:

02 Dec 99 | Health
China bans condom advert
01 Dec 99 | World
UN highlights Aids orphans
23 Nov 99 | Health
HIV hits 50 million
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