China faces a "critical period" in trying to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS in the general population, a senior official said on Monday as he announced another sharp rise in the number of recorded HIV infections.
"Although the epidemic is still spreading at a comparatively low speed in the country, the number of infection cases is still rising, especially among certain groups of people and in several regions," state media quoted Vice Minister of Health Wang Longde (王隴德) as saying.
Recorded cases among sex workers and pregnant women in regions with high rates of HIV infection had both increased, the official Xinhua news agency quoted Wang as saying.
"This indicates that the epidemic is spreading from high-risk groups to ordinary people, and that China is in a critical period for AIDS prevention," Wang said.
Health departments across China have reported a cumulative total of 135,630 cases of HIV infection by the end of September, of which 31,143 had developed AIDS, he said. That number was up 7.7 per cent from the 126,808 cases recorded by the end of June.
The number of recorded HIV cases has tripled in the last two years, but experts say this does not necessarily reflect a rapid spread of the disease. A campaign to test hundreds of thousands of rural residents who sold their blood in the 1990s was believed to be the major factor behind the sharp rise in recorded infections.
"We don't have the impression that there is an overall increase in infections," the spokeswoman for China at the World Health Organization, Aphaluck Bhatiasevi, said.
Recent random surveys seemed to "show little increase" in the number of HIV infections in China, Bhatiasevi said.
Wang said five regions accounted for 77 percent of recorded HIV cases. He said about 41 percent of cases were linked to intravenous drug use, 23 percent to the sale of blood and 9 percent to unprotected sex. The remaining 23 percent were infected through "unknown channels," though Wang said he believed most were also from unprotected sex.
UN health experts have warned that 10 million Chinese could be HIV-positive by 2010 if the government fails to expand its HIV/AIDS education, prevention and anti-discrimination campaigns.
"There are indications of spread of the epidemic to the general population and that's what the government is worried about," said Joel Rehnstrom, UNAIDS country coordinator for China.
Most HIV infection cases are believed to be still undiagnosed because of ignorance, fear, poverty and other factors.
China's official estimate of 840,000 HIV infections is expected to be revised on or around World AIDS Day.