China: the next Africa?
China, once accused of being slow to acknowledge the threat of AIDS, could have as many as 10 million HIV carriers in five years if no effective preventive measures are taken, state media said on Monday, echoing a grim UN warning.
China says it has 840,000 HIV-AIDS cases among its 1.3 billion population, but experts say at least a million poor farmers were infected in botched blood-selling schemes in the central province of Henan alone.
"If the preventive measures are slack, the number of people infected by HIV could reach 10 million by 2010," Dai Zhicheng, director of the Health Ministry's Committee of AIDS Experts, was quoted by the Xinhua Daily Telegraph as saying.
It looks as if years of denial about the extent of the AIDS epidemic in China is finally catching up with it. A background timeline:
- 1985: first reported case of AIDS in China.
- 1985-8: sporadic cases of AIDS, mostly in coastal cities and attributed to foreigners.
- 1989-93: outbreak of AIDS among drug users in Yunnan province. Again, largely attributed to foreigners or "Western influence."
- 1994-2000: HIV spreads throughout country, beginning of recognition of the problem. Steps taken to increase safety of blood supply and to address transmission.
- 2001-present: silence begins to break. "China Plan of Action to Contain, Prevent and Control HIV/AIDS (2001-2005)" published. Additional measures taken to screen blood supply, push to begin public education about AIDS and distribute anti-retrovirals, funding increased. (Much more information can be found here).
No one really knows how bad China's AIDS problem is. Many people lack access to basic medical care, and there may be large populations out there which are HIV+ but have not been diagnosed. Despite the government's recent efforts, there is still a high level of ignorance about HIV in the Chinese population. A 2003 survey showed that 17% of the population had never even heard of the disease, and an incredible 77% did not know that condoms could prevent sexual transmission. Those who are familiar with AIDS are likely to attach a stigma to patients, much like patients received in the early days of the AIDS epidemic in the United States (and still do to some degree, even today). Additionally, as the disease spreads among the heterosexual population, more AIDS orphans will result, potentially causing widespread disturbance in the population that will span the generations. Finally, China's tuberculosis problem is already severe; the spread of the AIDS epidemic and with it, a larger number of immunocompromised people, will likely worsen that problem. One can only hope that both China and the U.S. will learn from these missteps, and see that education trumps ignorance on a subject every time.