updated 1/26/2006 9:41:38 AM ET 2006-01-26T14:41:38

China on Wednesday revised down the number of people living in the country with the HIV virus, but international health agencies warned that with 70,000 new infections last year, there was no room for complacency.

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They also warned the virus was no longer restricted to drug users and those who sold blood, but had begun to spread quickly in the general population.

“China’s HIV infections have been linked to high-risk behavior. But now sex work is moving it toward the general population,” said Henk Bekedam, the World Health Organization’s representative in China.

By the end of 2005, China had an estimated 650,000 people infected with the HIV virus, 75,000 of whom had full-blown AIDS, according to the study by WHO, China’s Ministry of Health and the U.N. AIDS agency.

Bekedam said the new infection rate, roughly 200 cases a day, showed the situation in China was “more serious than we thought.” He spoke at a news conference announcing the new figures.

Unprotected sex
Most of the new cases were intravenous drug users or sex workers and their clients. But there was a growing number of infected pregnant mothers and spouses of the clients of sex workers, the report said.

While a ban on the sale of blood in the late 1990s reduced the number of infections through transfusions, Bekedam said unprotected sex was now becoming the primary means of spreading the virus.

He called for more awareness campaigns in China, and more free testing and treatment for HIV-positive people.

The biggest challenge facing China will be removing the stigma of HIV infection that has prevented people from being tested or seeking treatment, Bekedam said.

Free testing and counseling for those who seek it and free anti-retroviral treatment for the poor have been offered. However, people demanding better treatment and care are still often arrested or harassed by authorities.

The new study was an update on an assessment of the AIDS epidemic in China in 2003. China had estimated in 2003 that 840,000 people were HIV-positive and 84,000 people had full-blown AIDS.

Increasingly open
The lower numbers released Wednesday do not mean the situation is less critical, said Joel Rehnstrom, UNAIDS China country coordinator.

Most of the 2003 data came from a small number of areas where there was already a high prevalence of HIV infection, he said.

He said there were now better data collection methods and more in-depth knowledge about the most at-risk populations, which meant the new estimate was more accurate.

The new study also said the number of people previously thought to have contracted HIV through blood transfusions or blood sales was vastly overestimated, which had skewed the 2003 figures.

UNAIDS had estimated up to 10 million people in China could be infected by 2010 without more aggressive prevention measures. But Bekedam said that scenario was unlikely to materialize.

“At the time, it was a commitment by China that unless action was taken it might become 10 million ... but now we don’t believe that even in the worst-case scenario this is realistic,” he said.

China’s plan to keep the number of HIV-infected people under 1.5 million is a “good challenge,” Bekedam said.

AIDS activists have criticized Chinese authorities for being slow to acknowledge the extent of the disease in the country. But in recent years Beijing has become increasingly open about its epidemic.

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