China said yesterday another 70,000 people contracted HIV last year, bringing the country's total to 650,000, as international health organizations warned that the AIDS epidemic was spreading to the general population.
The figures were released in a joint statement by China's Health Ministry, the WHO and the UN's AIDS agency.
Most of the new cases were injecting drug users and sex workers and their clients, with a small percentage of babies contracting it from their mothers, WHO China representative Henk Bekedam told reporters.
He warned that the new infections, roughly 200 a day, showed the situation in China was "more serious than we thought."
About 75,000 people have full-blown AIDS, while 25,000 died of the disease last year, the statement said.
While a ban on the sale of blood in the late 1990s reduced the number of infections through transfusions, Bekedam said unprotected sex was becoming the new vector for the spread of the virus.
"China's HIV infections have been linked to high risk behavior. But now, sex work is moving it toward the general population," Bekedam said.
He called for greater HIV/AIDS awareness campaigns in China, and more free testing and treatment for HIV-positive people.
In the past, China has said it has 840,000 people who are infected with HIV and 80,000 AIDS patients.
However, the lower numbers released yesterday didn't mean the situation in the country was becoming less critical, said Joel Rehnstrom, UNAIDS China country coordinator.
He said there were now better data collection methods and more in-depth knowledge about the most at-risk populations, including intravenous drug users, sex workers and their clients, which meant the estimate was more accurate.
The UN AIDS agency had estimated up to 10 million could be infected by 2010 without more aggressive prevention measures, but Bekedam said that nightmare scenario was unlikely to materialize.
"At the time, it was a commitment by China that unless action was taken it might become 10 million ... but now we don't believe that even in the worst case scenario this is realistic," he said.
China's plan to keep the number of HIV-infected people under 1.5 million was a "good challenge," Bekedam said.
AIDS activists have criticized Chinese authorities for being slow to admit the extent of the disease in the country, but in recent years Beijing has become increasingly open about its epidemic.
Free testing and counseling for those who seek it and free anti-retroviral treatment for the poor have been offered. However, people demanding better treatment and care are still routinely arrested or harassed by authorities.