Tuesday, October 17, 2006

China is becoming like Africa with HIV/AIDS scourge

Tan Ee Lyn:

AIDS in China has spread beyond high risk groups such as injecting drug users, prostitutes and homosexuals and the country is becoming "like Africa" in how the virus is transmitted, a senior health official says.

"There are 190 new HIV infections every day ... and one percent of all pregnant women in China are infected," said Hao Yang, deputy director general of the bureau of diseases prevention and control at the Ministry of Health.

"That is a very high percentage. It is a generalized epidemic," he told Reuters in an interview.

"We're now like Africa. Last year, we found that 48 percent of those who were newly infected contracted the disease from sex, so it's not a disease that afflicts only high-risk groups."

Africa has the world's highest number of HIV/AIDS sufferers and the virus is spread mostly through heterosexual sex.

To combat the problem, it is now mandatory for all entertainment spots in China to make condoms available and methadone clinics have mushroomed all over the country to help drug addicts kick the habit.

Hao said for China's 650,000 people living with HIV/AIDS, first-line drugs had managed to prolong lives but some sufferers were beginning to develop resistance -- partly because they are unaware of the importance of keeping to strict drug regimens.

The HIV virus mutates rapidly and patients who fail to take antiretroviral drugs in the right amounts or at the right time will soon develop resistance -- something that is happening all-too-frequently in China, activists say.

"So many patients are just taking the drugs haphazardly. Doctors have to spend time to explain to patients how crucial it is to keep to the regimens if they want to preserve their lives," said Meng Lin, an AIDS activist in Beijing.

He added that some 60 village doctors were gathered in Beijing this week to listen to the needs of people living with HIV at a forum organized by the World Health Organization.

People on HIV drugs tend to develop resistance after some years and would need "second line" medicines, but there are very few of such stronger medicines available in China.

Often, Chinese sufferers find themselves having to choose between putting up with the awful side effects of these drugs, or die.

"We have to prepare for this. We are now discussing with foreign companies. In a short time, we will sign some accords with these companies to bring in these drugs," Hao said.

Beijing was talking with companies such as Abbott and Gilead Sciences Inc. to bring in second line drugs, Hao said. Abbott Laboratories Inc. makes a key second-line drug called Kaletra.

Beijing and Abbott are now hammering out the price, which Hao said was still too high for China and he called on the company to pay heed to its "social responsibility".

Beijing provides free HIV drugs for its citizens, but non-government groups say only very few benefit from that policy.

HIV/AIDS became a major headache for China in the 1980s and 1990s, when hundreds of thousands of impoverished farmers became infected through botched blood-selling schemes.

Although this practice has since been stopped, it has left behind some 75,000 orphans, some of whom are infected. Those who aren't will probably live under a long, dark shadow of stigma for the rest of their lives.

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