The real scale of the AIDS epidemic in China is obscured by poor monitoring and official obstruction say China’s top AIDS official who says a confirmed rise of 50% in cases is an underestimation.
Wang Longde, director of the State Council AIDS Prevention and Treatment Work Committee, says that the number of Chinese medically diagnosed with the HIV virus, which leads to AIDS, had grown to 135,630 by end-September.
At the same time last year, China had recorded 89,067 HIV cases.
According to health experts China’s vast size and dilapidated health system mean that only about 15 percent of HIV-positive people are officially diagnosed with the virus, and even fewer receive medical treatment for full-blown AIDS.
Speaking at a medical conference Wang said that local officials were continuing to cover up cases of infection, fearful that acknowledging the epidemic would harm economic growth and damage political standing and local economic development.
He says that local officials are unwilling to expand testing and certain areas do not truthfully report cases.
China estimated last year that by the end of 2003 it had 840,000 citizens infected with the HIV virus, while the World Health Organisation had given a lower estimate of about 650,000 cases.
But some international groups and Chinese AIDS activists put the figure in the millions.
Wang said on Monday that HIV was spread through sexual contact, especially prostitution, through intravenous drug use and from mothers to babies.
He believes the virus is more likely to spread throughout the larger population and the number of actual cases of infection was destined to grow.
Wang says the HIV virus is now spreading from high-risk groups to the general population, and a crucial stage in fighting and treating AIDS has been reached.
His comments were posted on a Chinese government Web site as the country prepares for World AIDS Day on Thursday.
According to Wang the infection rate among prostitutes rose from 2 in 10,000 in 1996, to 93 in 10,000 in 2004, and in “high-prevalence” areas, such as the rural central province of Henan, 0.26 percent of pregnant women were found to have HIV.
During the 1990s, many Chinese, especially in Henan, contracted the virus through contaminated blood transfusions, at a time when poor peasants sold their blood to professional blood buyers, often accredited by local health agencies or the military.
The blood was then pooled, plasma extracted for hospital use and the remainder returned to the donors, meaning that one infected person passed the disease to others.
But presently 40.8 percent of confirmed cases are due to intravenous drug injections, 9 percent through sexual transmission, 23 percent through blood selling, and 23.4 percent were of uncertain origin, says Wang.
Wang is concerned because he believes China’s unreported AIDS and HIV cases present a threat to containing the disease and has created an enormous problem in controlling the spread of AIDS.
Revision date: July 5, 2011
Last revised: by Sebastian Scheller, MD, ScD