More than 600,000 people in China are estimated to have the AIDS virus and the number is increasing by 30 percent annually, primarily because of an upsurge in infections among intravenous drug users, China's health minister says.

While the prevalence of the HIV virus and AIDS is still low — just 0.5 percent of China's 1.27 billion population — the government has launched a five-year plan to reduce the increase to 10 percent annually, Zhang Wenkang told The Associated Press.

The plan ranges from AIDS education for 15-year-olds and prevention messages from leading actors to vending machines for condoms and improved treatment including the possibility of cheap drugs, he said in an interview Monday after addressing the first U.N. General Assembly Special Session on HIV/AIDS.

Five years ago, about 40 percent of China's HIV cases were the result of the illegal selling of blood, primarily in rural areas where dirty needles were often used, he said. The government took measures to crack down on illegal blood-buying and now the percentage of HIV cases from tainted blood is only 4 percent to 6 percent, he said.

About 70 percent of HIV cases today are the result of intravenous drug use, Zhang said. About 10 percent of sufferers are infected as a result of heterosexual or homosexual relations, and a smaller percentage from mother-to-child transmission of the virus, he said.

Data from the Joint U.N. Program on HIV/AIDS, known as UNAIDS, indicates "a focused, explosive spread of infections among intravenous drug users and no significant spread among the non-intravenous drug user population."

Zhang said the estimate of more than 600,000 HIV sufferers was made by epidemiologists based on the actual number of reported HIV cases — 23,905 at the end of March. At that time, there were also 956 AIDS patients, and 537 confirmed deaths, he said.

U.N. figures on AIDS in China indicate some 500,000 adults were living with HIV or AIDS in 1999 and that 17,000 died from AIDS during that year.

UNAIDS has said that "while East Asia and the Pacific region still appear to be holding HIV at bay, the recent steep rise in sexually transmitted infections in China and the vast transmigration of people — spurred by economic growth — could unleash an epidemic."

Outlining the five-year plan to cut new HIV infections, China's health minister said education efforts in the mass media will focus on prevention and cultivating healthy lifestyles by having fewer sex partners and avoiding drugs.

Young people will be taught how to use condoms and condom vending machines will be installed in public places, he said. Blood used for transfusions during surgery will be tested and illegal blood selling eliminated.

Zhang called on pharmaceutical companies to reduce the cost of drugs in the "cocktail" that has proven effective in treating HIV and AIDS sufferers. About 200 Chinese afflicted with the virus are currently taking part in a trial, using free drugs, he said, and a few people are paying for their own drugs.

"It's very small, so we hope we can find better ways to give all these patients adequate treatment, to have cheaper drugs or free drugs," Zhang said.

Though China is starting to confront its AIDS crisis, the government still harasses activists seeking to draw attention to the problem — especially when doing so uncovers government negligence.

Last month, Chinese officials refused to issue a passport to retired physician Dr. Gao Yaojie to accept the Jonathan Mann Award from the Global Health Council at a ceremony in Washington, D.C., attended by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

Gao, 74, has publicized the spread of AIDS among poor farmers in central China, blamed on an unsanitary blood-buying industry. She said officials accused her of helping "anti-China forces."

Contacted at her home in Henan province's capital, Zhengzhou, Gao said officials have told her patients to sever ties with her, saying she had been arrested. People who have visited her at home have been detained and officials have blocked her from distributing donated medicine and cash to AIDS victims, she said.

Dr. Gao has published her own report about AIDS in China and plans to distribute it free to patients, health institutions, and the media.