Major funding needed to avert AIDS epidemic in China – UN

7 December 2004

China has made an “an impressive turnaround” over the past year in its response to its growing HIV/AIDS problem and fighting tuberculosis, but investment must continue to grow if a major epidemic is to be averted, the head of a United Nations-backed effort to combat the diseases said today.

“China has realized that widespread epidemics, such as HIV/AIDS, TB and malaria, pose a serious threat against economic development, poverty reduction and a stable society,” Richard Feachem, Executive Director of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, declared after talks with senior government officials.

The Global Fund is a unique global public-private partnership created three years ago on the initiative of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to attract and disburse additional resources in the battle against the three diseases.

“It would be fantastic if China could show the world how to contain the epidemic,” said Dr. Feachem, who is in Beijing to discuss Global Fund-financed programmes for the country. “However, should we fail, the consequences would not only be catastrophic for China – they would be felt all over the world.”

He added that China could avert a major AIDS epidemic through sustained commitment, continued scale up of resources at the pace it has done over the year and further expansion of its open-minded prevention activities and care to vulnerable groups. He also said China’s scale-up against TB – a disease which currently kills many more people than AIDS – may eventually lead to a reduction in new cases.

Unlike many other countries, China recognizes that even low overall HIV infection rates pose a serious threat in the long run, he added. It has moved quickly to put in place anti-discrimination laws, to build a treatment programme for those already infected and to initiate prevention activities targeting injecting drug users and sex workers.

“The Global Fund is pleased that we provide substantial resources for China’s effort to fight HIV/AIDS, and we appreciate the considerable matching budget allocations from the Chinese Government,” he said.

The Fund has committed $113 million to China; $56 million for HIV/AIDS as well as $53.5 million to fight tuberculosis and $3.5 million to fight malaria. If these grants yield agreed results in their first two years, another $160 million will be made available.

In its recently published epidemiological report, the Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) says the disease has spread to all of China’s 31 provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities. In some, such as Henan and surrounding provinces in central China, HIV was already spreading a decade ago among rural people who sold blood plasma to supplement their incomes. Elsewhere, the virus has established a more recent but solid presence among injecting drug users and, to a lesser extent, sex workers and their clients. Sexual transmission of HIV from injecting drug users to their sexual partners looks certain to feature more prominently in China’s fast-evolving epidemic.

Once HIV becomes established in commercial sex circuits, onward spread of the virus could be quite rapid if current behavioural trends persist. Already, the HIV rate among people treated for sexually transmitted diseases is a grave cause for concern. To hold back this potential proliferation, China needs to move swiftly and with great resolve, UNAIDS warns.