Sat, Nov 11, 2006 - Page 2 News List

Virulent Chinese strain of HIV affecting Taiwan

SOARING The nation's HIV infection rate has doubled over recent years with the finger of blame pointed at drug users and a strain alleged to be more contagious

By Max Hirsch  /  STAFF REPORTER

An explosion in HIV cases in Taiwan is due in large part to the spread of a strain of the virus that originated in China, a top HIV/AIDS researcher said yesterday.

Arthur Chen (陳宜民), a professor of public health at National Yangming University, said that a more virulent form of HIV that came from China was behind a doubling of Taiwan's HIV infection cases in the past few years.

"With one in every 1,000 people in Taiwan infected with HIV, compared to one HIV-infected person per every 2,000 people in China, our HIV prevalence rate is now higher than China's," said Chen, who was invited by the Taipei Foreign Correspondents' Club to give a briefing on the country's HIV cases.

According to official statistics, around 650,000 people in China have HIV.

Currently, there are more than 12,600 reported cases of HIV in Taiwan, but the true number is estimated to be between 30,000 and 40,000 cases, conference panelists said.

Intravenous drug (ID) users have suffered the highest rate of infection in recent years.

Yang Shih-yan (揚世仰), an official from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) under the Department of Health who also took part in the event yesterday, confirmed Chen's statement that a Chinese HIV strain, which is allegedly more contagious than other strains, was behind a soaring HIV infection rate in Taiwan, especially among ID users.

But, Yang said, the infection rate appeared to be leveling off this year due to the CDC's efforts to distribute clean, free syringes to ID users nationwide.

"Everyone needs sex; some people need drugs. So, distributing needles is as necessary as handing out condoms [to stem the spread of HIV/AIDS]," Yang said.

Chen said that the Chinese HIV strain has been spreading to Taiwan via cross-strait drug trafficking routes, with many Taiwanese ID users traveling to locations such as Yunnan Province, where heroin is relatively cheap and pure.

The ID users share needles to shoot up, contract HIV and return to Taiwan, where they spread the virus into the general population, the researcher said, adding that the Yunnan-Guangxi-Hong Kong-Taiwan drug smuggling route was a prime conduit for the spread of HIV.

"We are seeing numerous ID users who don't even share needles but have contracted the virus by shooting up repeatedly from the same batch of heroin," Chen said.

A fivefold increase in the street value of heroin in Taiwan indicated that demand for the drug was at an all-time high, and as the number of ID users increases, the local HIV/AIDS epidemic is likely to worsen, he added.

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