The spread of HIV/AIDS has quickened its pace in Taiwan as the number of Taiwanese infected with the killer virus has soared to an unprecedented 1,513 people last year, according to Center for Disease Control statistics.
The HIV/AIDS infection rate rose by 76 percent in last year alone, compared to the 859 newly-infected in 2003. The alarming pace of infection is partly due to the growing population of intravenous drug users, health officials said.
"Apart from unsafe sex, needle sharing among intravenous drug users has become the biggest risk factor. Some 446 intravenous drug users were infected with HIV in 2004 alone," the chief of the Center's AIDS section, Tsai Shu-feng (蔡淑芬), said yesterday.
"It is a staggering six-fold jump compared to 2003 figures," Tsai added.
The invisible population of intravenous drug users maybe a land mine that ignites an HIV/AIDS epidemic in the country if prevention measures are not implemented, health experts warned.
"The AIDS storm is coming," said Chen Yi-ming (陳宜民), director of the AIDS Research and Prevention Center at National Yang Ming University.
"The [intravenous drug user] group has grown six-fold every year since 2002. If the trend is not curbed, the population of drug users with HIV will grow by 1,500 to 2,000 people by the end of 2005," Chen added.
The HIV transmission via needles also takes a toll on women. While only three female drug users were found to be infected with HIV in 2003, the figure climbed to 53 last year, according to center statistics.
"From the official figures, we see that the number of female intravenous drug users infected with HIV has skyrocketed," Chen said.
The figures are likely just a tip of iceberg, since most intravenous drug users are driven underground by police, health officials said.
"Seventy-two of our reported cases are from people currently in prison. Yet we don't know how many drug users are on the street," said Tsai.
Chen, who also chairs the Living with Hope Foundation, whose social workers pay regular visits to prison, said that at least 100,000 people have taken up the intravenous drug habit nationwide.