Unsafe sex has overtaken intravenous drug use as the primary cause of new HIV infections in China, suggesting that AIDS is spreading from high-risk groups to the general population, state media reported yesterday.
Of the 70,000 new HIV infections recorded in 2005, nearly half contracted the virus through sexual contact, the China Daily reported, citing a report released jointly by the Ministry of Health and the China Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
"It's the first time since 1989, when the first HIV infection was detected, for sex to top the transmission list nationwide," the newspaper quoted Gao Qi, of the China HIV/AIDS Information Network, as saying.
China has an estimated 650,000 people living with HIV or AIDS, and while the government has become increasingly open about the problem, efforts to fight the spread of the virus are still hampered by conservative attitudes about sex and suspicion of grassroots activists and non-governmental organizations.
Surveys show that one in 10 sexually active men in China have been involved with prostitution at least once, and the government was taking measures to initiate condom use programmes and AIDS eduction among sex workers, the newspaper said.
It is also focusing prevention efforts on gay men, who made up 7.3 percent of the new infections through sex.
A separate survey conducted by China's Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that although teenagers in China were having sex at an earlier age, 40 percent did not use protection the first time and they had little AIDS education.
Meanwhile, thousands of government officials and health care workers from across Asia are meeting in Sri Lanka for an international conference aimed at ensuring the AIDS epidemic does not worsen in the region.
Opening the conference on Sunday night, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse urged Asia's government leaders to forge a common approach to facing the advancing danger of AIDS.
"As a mark of such solidarity, we must join hands within our respective countries and across boarders throughout the Asia-Pacific region, to achieve our objectives in limiting -- and hopefully eliminating -- the spread of AIDS," Rajapakse said.
He also called for changes to established patent policies, to make life-saving drugs available to all those in need.
The conference, called "Waves of Change, Waves of Hope," has brought together 2,500 policy makers and health professionals from around Asia to share their experiences in fighting the spread of the disease, and in treating and supporting those already infected.
"The Asia and Pacific region has a low prevalence of HIV/AIDS, but the challenge across the countries is to keep the prevalence low," Deborah Landey, deputy director of UNAIDS, said at a news conference.
An estimated 8.6 million people in the region are infected with HIV. That number, though considerable, remains far below the rate in sub-Saharan Africa, where 25.8 million people are infected.
Landey said each country must keep on its toes for new social trends in the spread of the virus.