A Chinese couple wait at a subway station in front of an AIDS awareness campaign poster in Beijing
Claro Cortes I V  /  Reuters
A Chinese couple wait in front of an AIDS awareness campaign poster at a subway station in Beijing on Wednesday. 
By Correspondent
NBC News
updated 12/2/2005 12:14:58 PM ET 2005-12-02T17:14:58

At a bustling train station in Beijing this week, workers and volunteers began handing out pamphlets to train passengers reminding them of the dangers of HIV/AIDS and tips on how to prevent the spread of the disease.

The intended audience is the 1.1 billion people who ride China’s vast railway system annually. Many of the passengers are migrant workers who are now considered a high-risk group for HIV/AIDS infection.

China's Vice Health Minister, Wang Longde, says that China's 120 million migrants are at greater risk of HIV/AIDS because of a lack of education and health knowledge.

Many of them are illiterate, so the brochures depict how to prevent HIV in vivid cartoons. Longde says migrants, who often crowd the trains from Inner Mongolia to Beijing, should get more attention and control efforts from the government.

AIDS is now reported in all 31 China provinces and autonomous regions. Injected drug use is the main route of transmission.

Last year, following a joint survey with the World Health Organization (WHO), the Chinese government estimated there were around 840,000 HIV infected people in China, including about 80,000 AIDS patients.

Trying to stem the tide
But the numbers are only a guess. Health experts say that China's vast size and dilapidated health system mean that only about 15 percent of HIV-positive people are officially diagnosed with the virus, and even fewer receive medical treatment.

The WHO warned this week that if Asian governments don’t do more to help stop the spread of HIV/AIDS, 10 million people in China could be infected by 2010.

But, on the eve of World AIDS Day, China’s Health Minister Gao Qiang said China aimed to keep the total of people infected by the HIV virus that causes AIDS to below 1.5 million by 2010.

The spread of AIDS could damage China's economic development and affect the nation's "rise or decline,” Gao said on Wednesday, stressing the need to take strong preventive measures.

"AIDS prevention work is an issue relating to the quality of the population, economic development, social stability and the rise or decline of the country," Gao told a news conference.

The central government was spending 800 million yuan on AIDS prevention this year, up from 100 million yuan in 2002, the minister said, adding that China was capable of effectively containing the spread of the virus.

Acknowledgement a step forward
The fact that China’s leadership is even acknowledging an AIDS problem is milestone. China learned a hard lesson from the SARS epidemic in 2003 that it cannot keep infectious diseases — SARS, AIDS or bird flu —a state secret.

“I think China is trying very hard to play the good global citizen; that it’s really about the geo-politics of infectious diseases and also relations within East Asia,” said Dr. Gabriel Leung of the University of Hong Kong. “The Chinese leadership truly wants to have a very strong handle on infectious diseases – not just on pandemic influenza – but also on HIV/AIDS.”

Leung explained that the watershed moment for China was when Premiere Wen Jia Bao openly talked about AIDS.

“He actually toured a lot of HIV hotspots all over the country in the last 24 months since he has assumed the leadership. He has really tried to highlight to middle level officials at the provincial and city levels that it is okay to acknowledge and identify that there is a problem and deal with it proactively,” said Leung.

That helps explain why in Shanghai, China’s largest city, health officials are installing 1,200 condom vending machines, including 200 that will dispense condoms for free. The government already gives away condoms at 17,000 sites in Shanghai, according to China’s official news agency. Much of it has to do with family planning, but the rollout of the new condom machines coincides with China’s observance of World AIDS day.

The machines will be set up in public places, where large numbers of migrants are likely to gather after a long train ride across China.

Charles Hadlock is a correspondent and producer for NBC News, currently on assignment in Hong Kong. Reuters contributed to this report.

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