Activists in Bangkok, Thailand, handed out condoms (search) to passers-by and pamphlets urging people not to inject drugs, challenging conservative social mores in Asia as the region marked World AIDS Day (search) on Wednesday with vows to fight harder to halt the disease's spread.

In China, the government signaled it was heeding dire warnings of an AIDS explosion this decade by broadcasting television footage of President Hu Jintao (search) making a rare visit to AIDS patients in a hospital and ordering thousands of local officials to learn about the disease.

Like many countries in Asia, China has been criticized for being slow to admit that AIDS (search) is a growing problem and for leaving public health systems ill-equipped to deal with it.

National infection rates are lower in Asia than in other parts of the world — particularly worst-hit Africa — but the large populations of many countries in the region mean vast numbers of people are stricken. The epidemic has claimed about 540,000 lives in Asia so far this year.

Chinese President Hu Jintao shook hands with AIDS patients during Tuesday's highly publicized hospital visit. On Wednesday, he called on "leaders of various levels to enhance their HIV/AIDS knowledge," the official Xinhua News Agency said.

China says it has an estimated 840,000 people infected with the AIDS virus and 84,000 who have the full-blown disease. The U.N. AIDS agency has warned that China could have as many as 10 million people infected by 2010 if it doesn't take urgent action.

Elsewhere in Asia, health officials stressed that women are the most vulnerable.

Some 47 percent of the 39.4 million people worldwide infected with HIV (search) are female, and women in East Asia are contracting the disease at a faster rate, often because men who visit prostitutes are increasingly passing on the virus to their wives, the United Nations warned last week.

Health workers, patients and volunteers in Thailand — one of the countries hardest hit by the disease and among the first to launch preventative campaigns — were due to march through the streets of the capital, Bangkok.

About 600,000 people have died of AIDS in Thailand (search), where about 572,000 others live with the disease. Thai health authorities are providing free generic anti-retroviral drugs to about 50,000 people this year.

In the Philippines, gay men — one wearing only shorts adorned with multicolored condoms — strutted before the press Tuesday to promote HIV testing. Marches and a clothing donation drive were held in Vietnam, where alarming new infection rates have been reported in low-risk groups such as pregnant women.

Activists in Tokyo began handing out condoms and about 20,000 pamphlets in the streets, and a popular nightclub was planning a benefit concert for Wednesday night.

In Bangladesh, where the epidemic is still relatively limited, nearly 10,000 anti-AIDS activists, including health officials, volunteers, students and sex workers, marched through streets of the capital, Dhaka, to create public awareness about the disease.

In South Korea, members of the Korean Alliance to Defeat AIDS made balloons out of colorful condoms and distributed some wrapped as lollipops in a busy Seoul subway station.

Activists in Malaysia also targeted train stations, distributing pamphlets but not condoms in the predominantly Muslim country's capital, Kuala Lumpur.

Marina Mahathir, president of the private Malaysian AIDS Council, warned that the country's AIDS situation was worsening because of lack of awareness about the dangers of unprotected sex and intravenous drug use.

"We live surrounded by silence about HIV, even though we may hear a lot of news about it," Marina wrote in a column in The Star newspaper.

In Pakistan, about 400 aid workers were discussing how to coordinate an anti-AIDS strategy for the Asia-Pacific region, and focusing on empowering women in a region where men usually have a dominant role in society.

In Taiwan, activist Lin Yi-huei said the image of people living with the disease had to change, including media representations that often presented AIDS sufferers as promiscuous and reckless.