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China opens AIDS conference

China's first national conference on AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases convened Tuesday with both praise and a warning from the head of the United Nations' AIDS programs.

Peter Piot, executive director of UNAIDS, said the conference symbolized a remarkable change of attitude in China toward AIDS over the past two years.

Many Chinese officials once denied the disease existed, viewing it as a cause of shame and fearing it would scare off investors. The government now has launched a highly publicized five-year plan of education and prevention that Piot said demonstrates a "serious commitment and will to tackle the epidemic in China."

He also warned that if China fails to follow through aggressively, it faces a raging epidemic.

"Asia is rapidly catching up to Africa as the region with the largest number of HIV infections in world, but Asia still has a key opportunity to stop the epidemic before it reaches catastrophic proportions," Piot said in a speech at the opening ceremony.

"Nowhere is this more true than in China," he added. "I said that this conference is of global significance, and the reason is simply this: Over the next two decades, what happens in China will determine the global burden of HIV/AIDS."

The official number of AIDS cases in China so far is small, considering that the nation has 1.26-billion people.

Health Minister Zhang Wenkang told conference delegates that 1,208 AIDS cases had been recorded by the end of September, and that 641 of those had ended in death. He said the official number of people infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, is 28,133. But he acknowledged that experts estimate the actual number of HIV infections is more than 600,000. He said national surveillance data show that the number of infections reported in the first half of this year increased 67 percent over the same period last year.

"There has been a large increase in the number of HIV infections and deaths," he said. "HIV is gradually spreading from people with high-risk behaviors to the general population."

Most official AIDS cases in China are linked to the practice of injecting drugs, but a rapidly growing percentage of cases are linked to sex.

Based on patterns of AIDS epidemics in other countries, Piot estimated that as many as 10-million HIV infections could be averted in China if the nation aggressively fights the epidemic.