The history of AIDS in China

16:43, November 22, 2009      

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China’s first AIDS case was reported in a traveller from abroad who subsequently died in Beijing in 19855. In the following five years a small number of further cases were reported among foreigners and Chinese, who were infected overseas or by imported blood products6.

During the early stages of the AIDS epidemic the Health Ministry concentrated its prevention efforts on the risk of infection from abroad. In 1987 it threatened to bar all foreign students from classes if they failed to comply with the mandatory AIDS screening programme.7 Although a National Programme for AIDS Prevention and Control was set up in 1987, the Public Health Authorities reported that AIDS would not become established as homosexuality and "abnormal" sexuality - thought to be the main causes of the spread of HIV - were a "limited" problem.

In 1989, 146 injecting drug users (IDUs) in Southwest Yunnan were identified as HIV positive. By the end of the year the total number of infected people was reported as 153 Chinese and 41 foreigners. At that time AIDS and drug addiction were seen as consequences of contact with the West, and AIDS was known as aizibing, the "loving capitalism disease".

By late 1994 it was clear that the reported AIDS cases amongst IDUs in Yunnan had signalled the beginning of an epidemic amongst drug users. National figures for HIV infection were growing quickly – in 1996 the Minister of Health, Chen Min-Zhang, put the number of infections at between 50,000 and 100,00011 - and new cases were being reported in more regions. By 1998, HIV infections had been reported in all 31 provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities, with drug users accounting for 60-70% of reported infections.

The sharp increase in AIDS cases in China in the 1990s was also attributed to a large number of people infected through blood donation, which was widely reported by the western press, as well as transmission through heterosexual sex, which increased steadily to represent 7% of all HIV infections.

There was a notable shift in government response to the epidemic in the new millennium. On World AIDS Day 2001, stories and testimonials of those infected with HIV alongside a television drama about AIDS reflected a far greater willingness to discuss the emerging epidemic

In 2003, the Health Minister’s change in attitude was evident. It is widely felt that the 2003 SARS epidemic prompted the change as it demonstrated to the government the impact public health could have on social and economic stability. He described the fight against AIDS as a "long-term war" and, as well as showing a new willingness to accept overseas assistance, requested that China’s AIDS budget of US$12.5 million be doubled.

On World AIDS Day 2003, Wen Jiabao became the first Chinese premier to shake hands with an HIV-positive person.

Peter Piot, the Executive Director of UNAIDS commented:

“I really feel that there is a change going on... I know that for top state leaders in China today, AIDS is on the agenda.”

Source: Agencies
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