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China facing HIV/AIDS disaster of 'unimaginable proportion,' UN warns

China facing HIV/AIDS disaster of 'unimaginable proportion,' UN warns

Ten million people in China could contract the AIDS virus by the end of the decade, pushing the country towards a potential disaster of "unimaginable proportion," according to new United Nations report released today.

"China is on the verge of a catastrophe that could result in unimaginable human suffering, economic loss and social devastation," the Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) says in the study, entitled HIV/AIDS: China's Titanic Peril. "Indeed, we are now witnessing the unfolding of an HIV/AIDS epidemic of proportions beyond belief, an epidemic that calls for an urgent and proper - but currently unanswered - quintessential response."

According to the report, millions of Chinese people have never heard the word "AIDS," while many still think that HIV can be contracted from mosquito bites or shaking hands. Treatment is also lacking. "Most of those infected with HIV do not have access to even the most basic services for care, support and understanding," the study says.

At the same time, discrimination persists. "In some areas," the report notes, "people known to be living with HIV/AIDS are prevented from attending school, getting married, or visiting public swimming pools."

Although the epidemic calls for urgent actions, many factors have hindered an effective response, the report notes, including insufficient political commitment and leadership at many levels of government. Other obstacles include insufficient openness when dealing with the epidemic and a lack of both human and financial resources. "Some concerned people who dare to speak out about the pending disaster are ignored or challenged, and sometimes even opposed by local authorities," the report states.

"It can be feared that in the near future, China might count more HIV infections than any other country in the world," the report warns.

In response to this grim scenario, UNAIDS calls for urgent action to avert a catastrophe. These include improved HIV/AIDS programmes based on detailed and dynamic situation and response analysis. "The current chaotic situation in the STI [sexually transmitted infection] care system needs to be addressed like a priority natural disaster."