BEIJING – Chinese President Hu Jintao (search) was shown on state television Tuesday smiling and shaking hands with AIDS patients, a first for China and signaling a new level of official recognition of the threat the virus poses to the world's most populous country.
The broadcast coincided with the Chinese Cabinet's AIDS commission releasing a joint report with the United Nations warning that the disease is spreading in China from high-risk groups such as drug users to the general population.
The U.N. AIDS (search) agency says the number of infected people in China could rise tenfold to 10 million by 2010, from an estimated 840,000 HIV-infected people today, if no urgent action is taken.
In recent years, the Chinese government has launched efforts to control the virus after years of denying it was a problem.
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 many people are in your family?" "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, part of a government campaign to show it cares. Premier Wen Jiabao (search) set the new tone in December 2003, when he was photographed shaking hands with Chinese stricken with the disease.
The new joint U.N.-China report, however, warned that the epidemic is spreading quickly.
"The transmission of HIV is still on the rise," said Dr. Christian Voumard, the chairman of the U.N. Theme Group on HIV/AIDS. He cited a higher number of women contracting the virus and a larger proportion of transmissions through sex.
In April, health officials began offering a free AIDS test 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.
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. That might partly a result of more screening of blood and plasma donors, the report said.
The stepped-up precautions among donors is a welcome change.
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.