President Hu Jintao was shown on state television Tuesday shaking hands with AIDS patients for the first time, as a report warned that the disease is spreading in China from high-risk groups such as drug users to the general population.
The number of people contracting the AIDS virus in China (search) is rising, according to a report by a U.N. agency and the Chinese Cabinet's AIDS commission (search) released on the eve of World AIDS Day.
It called for stepped up measures to gather information on the spread of the virus and more prevention efforts.
China says an estimated 840,000 of its people have HIV while 84,000 have full-blown AIDS, spread mostly through prostitution and intravenous drug use. The U.N. AIDS agency says the number of infected people in China could rise to 10 million by 2010 without more urgent action.
The Chinese government has in recent years launched efforts to control the virus after years of denying it was a problem. But it still harasses activists who agitate for better measures.
State television showed Hu smiling and wearing a red AIDS ribbon as he met and chatted with an unidentified male patient at Beijing's You'an Hospital. "When did you contract the disease?" he asked. "How are your children?"
"The party and the government are all concerned about you," Hu added. "I hope you will have confidence in your treatment by cooperating with the hospital and trying to have an early recovery."
It was the first time China's president was shown meeting AIDS patients and part of a government campaign to show it cares. Premier Wen Jiabao set the new tone in December 2002, when he was photographed shaking hands with ordinary Chinese stricken with the disease.
The new joint U.N.-China report warned, however, that the epidemic is spreading to the general population.
"The transmission of HIV is still on the rise," said Dr. Christian Voumard, the chairman of the U.N. Theme Group on HIV/AIDS, the co-sponsor of the report.
He cited a higher number of women contracting the virus and a larger proportion of transmissions through sex.
Large numbers of cases have been found in the provinces of Yunnan in the southwest and Henan in central China, as well as in the northwestern desert region of Xinjiang, according to the report.
It said that might be due in part to more screening of commercial blood and plasma donors, as well as intravenous drug-users.
"That is a call for stepping up prevention measures," Voumard said.
Some parts of Henan have the world's highest rates of infection after an unsanitary blood-buying industry in the 1990s spread the virus among donors. Drug use is widespread in Yunnan, which borders heroin-producing areas of Southeast Asia.
The report didn't explain the increase in Xinjiang, but the mostly Muslim region was one of 10 areas targeted this year in a program aimed at stemming the spread of the virus.
Voumard said China still lacks a nationwide system to gather information on infection rates.
In April, health officials began offering free AIDS tests to anyone who wants one and free treatment for the poor. Health officials are also now encouraging pregnant women to be tested.
In some parts of China, the report noted, as many as 5 percent of pregnant women are infected.