HONG KONG�The number of people infected with HIV/AIDS in China could rise to 10 million in the next six years unless the government acts urgently and effectively to prevent an epidemic.

China currently has 840,000 people infected with HIV, according to official figures. But even top health officials have admitted that the true number may be greater due to under-reporting. Around 80,000 have already developed full-blown AIDS.

While the majority of Chinese infections have so far been found among drug users, a surge of infections has also been recorded through the sex trade. This is particularly true in China�s holiday getaways on the eastern and southern coasts and in its cities, the Joint U.N. Program on HIV/AIDS said in its biennial report on the global AIDS epidemic released Tuesday.

China has �extremely serious� epidemics in parts of the country despite a low rate of the disease nationwide of about 0.1 percent, UNAIDS said. The virus has spread to all provinces of China but with no distinct pattern of infection, the report said.

UNAIDS delegates attending an annual global AIDS conference in Bangkok said Asian countries must act immediately and decisively to prevent the virus from spreading further in a region that is home to 60 percent of humanity.

�We emphasize the need to allocate more national budget and secure external resources, both financial resources and social capital, to ensure equitable access for all to prevention, treatment, and care,� they said in the draft report.

Health ministers and senior officials from 34 countries in the region will meet on the sidelines of the conference to discuss strengthening efforts against a disease affecting 7.4 million people in Asia.

For years, China has faced international condemnation for disguising the scale of its AIDS epidemic, neglecting patients and arresting activists and journalists. Activists from fledgling NGOs have warned Beijing that public health issues cannot be treated as a state secret.

Last year, Premier Wen Jiabao became the first Chinese leader to shake hands with an AIDS patient and the government then sent health workers to the central province of Henan where around 1 million people are thought to have been infected from blood-selling schemes in the 1990s.

China�s official Xinhua news agency said Wednesday that the northern province of Hebei was also bracing for a surge in the number of full-blown AIDS patients as those in poor rural areas infected from blood-selling developed the disease, putting a strain on limited health care resources.

Funding should to be increased to improve medical services in counties and towns in the province, it quoted AIDS experts from the provincial center for disease control as saying.

Elsewhere in China, infection rates among drug users, especially the southwestern province of Yunnan, have reached 80 percent because of the sharing of contaminated needles.

The United Nations has also recorded other examples of high-risk behavior. A survey of 800 men who had sex with other men revealed that more than half of them had also had unprotected intercourse with women in the previous year.

China�s government has significantly increased AIDS spending from U.S.$300 million in 2001 to U.S.$1.2 billion in 2003. Last week, Beijing said it was close to signing a deal with pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline to make a key AIDS drug available to poor patients later this year.

Currently AIDS treatment is very expensive in China, with the �cocktail� of three anti-retroviral drugs available only from pharmaceutical giants. These charge around U.S.$3,800 for a year�s treatment, compared with just U.S.$250-280 in Thailand, where lower cost, generic drugs are now available. #####


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