China Battles AIDS Despite Some Government Resistance

China has taken significant steps to fight HIV and AIDS, but long-run challenges include reaching out to more patients in the vast country and overcoming a lack of cooperation from some government officials, a U.N. AIDS official said Tuesday.

There are an estimated 650,000 people living with HIV in China, according to the most recent government statistics from the end of 2005. HIV gained a foothold in China largely due to unsanitary blood plasma-buying schemes and tainted transfusions in hospitals.

"I believe that over the last few years there have been serious progress and good results in the fight against AIDS in China and now the challenge is to sustain these efforts," said Peter Piot, executive director of UNAIDS.

Piot said successes in China include commitment and transparency at the top levels of government, as well as proper funding, availability of antiretroviral drugs and outreach programs.

"I've been coming to China for 14, 15 years and I can say in the first five or six years there was basically no receptivity in terms of the issue," he said. "And now today a lot is going on. You look at budgets, systems are being put in place, I think it's really very different."

Piot recently returned from Shangcai County in Henan province, where unclean blood-buying businesses passed the virus to thousands of people in the 1990s. He toured a clinic and orphanage for AIDS orphans and also visited with patients.

There was a 50 percent reduction in the number of AIDS deaths in Henan province between 2002 and last year, said Wang Longde, China's vice minister of health, who also spoke at the U.N. news conference.

Cases of transfusions using infected blood have fallen sharply since the 1990s. The government has banned the practice of buying blood, and has forbidden donations by prostitutes, intravenous drug users and others in high HIV risk groups.