BEIJING – Two months before the end of 2006, China's reported number of HIV/ AIDS cases already is nearly 30 percent higher than for all of last year, with intravenous drug use as the biggest source of infection, the Health Ministry said Wednesday.
The increase in reported cases indicates that China is doing "more testing and more reporting and also that the epidemic continues to grow in many parts of the country," said Joel Rehnstrom, coordinator for the China office of UNAIDS, the United Nations' AIDS organization.
After years of denying that AIDS was a problem, Chinese leaders have dramatically shifted gears in recent years, promising anonymous testing, free treatment for the poor and a ban on discrimination against people with the virus.
President Hu Jintao signaled the new approach by appearing on national television in late 2004 chatting and shaking hands with AIDS patients.
Rehnstrom said reported HIV cases have been steadily increasing at a rate of about 30 percent annually since 1999, but the real number of HIV cases in China is likely four to five times the reported figure.
The United Nations said Tuesday in its annual report on the epidemic that an estimated 39.5 million people are now living with the AIDS virus worldwide as infection rates and deaths from the disease continue to mount.
The reported number of cases in China grew to 183,733 by Oct. 31 this year, up about 28 percent from 144,089 at the end of last year, the Health Ministry said in a report posted on its Web site. Of the reported cases, 40,667 have developed into AIDS, it said.
"Each new HIV infection is a tragedy," Rehnstrom said. "The government needs to focus its efforts on ... trying to stop the spread of HIV and to trying to bring the spread of HIV under control as soon as possible by controlling HIV transmission among injecting drug users and sex workers."
He said government efforts to promote clean needles and methadone treatments were beginning to have an effect but that those programs needed to be expanded.
The official Xinhua News Agency reported Wednesday that government health surveys show that only about 39 percent of Chinese sex workers use condoms and about 51 percent of drug addicts still share needles.
The report also quoted Hao Yang, deputy director of the Health Ministry's Bureau of Disease Control, as saying that the rising number of cases showed that "the danger of the disease spreading further remains great."
The ministry said in its report that 37 percent of the cases reported this year were linked to drug use and 28 percent were caused by unsafe sex.
About 5 percent of the cases were caused by people selling blood illegally or receiving infected blood from hospitals.
HIV gained a foothold in China largely due to unsanitary blood plasma buying schemes and tainted transfusions in hospitals. China has cracked down harshly on such schemes and declared last year that the problem of tainted blood supplies was under control though new cases still emerge sporadically, often in rural areas.
Transmission from mothers to babies was about 1 percent, the ministry said. It did not say what caused the remaining infections.
Experts say China has hundreds of thousands people infected with HIV who don't know it or choose not to report it. At the end of last year, China and the U.N. estimated there were a total of 650,000 HIV cases in the country, including those that were unreported.
The ministry said Wednesday there had been 4,060 AIDS deaths this year as of Oct. 31, bringing the total number of reported deaths in China due to the disease to 12,464 since it was identified there in the mid-1990s.