The lessons China learned in beating back SARS earlier this year can help it fight its AIDS epidemic — as long as the central government keeps providing quick and honest information, the head of the U.N. AIDS agency said Friday.

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“Through openness firstly, and through strong leadership ... the government was able to set up a system” to battle SARS, said Dr. Peter Piot, executive director of UNAIDS, in an interview at a World Economic Forum event.

Beijing was criticized for its initial reluctance to release information about severe acute respiratory syndrome, a flu-like disease that surfaced in southern China late last year and killed 774 people worldwide before subsiding in June. In China, 349 died.

The Chinese government has likewise been slow to disclose the extent of AIDS in the country. But in Piot’s view, Beijing has recently shown a greater willingness to fight the disease and presented concrete plans to prevent its spread. “I’ve come to China many times, and I see the difference,” he said.

The change in attitude come at a critical juncture. Another AIDS expert, speaking at a different event Friday in another part of Beijing, said the number of HIV patients in China could reach “frightening” levels.

“There are about a million individuals in China who are already infected,” said Dr. David Ho, executive director of the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center in New York. “There are some concerns about what the epidemic will look like 10 years from now, and the numbers might be frightening to some.”

Ho, who was Time magazine’s Man of the Year in 1996 for helping develop a drug “cocktail” to treat AIDS, is spearheading an AIDS summit Monday that will include a speech by former U.S. President Bill Clinton and the personal account of a doctor from central China’s Henan province, where an unsanitary blood-selling industry sped AIDS transmission.

AIDS “is obviously a health crisis,” Ho said. “When it’s a problem of that magnitude it has to be a great concern to the leadership and, I think, to the general public.”

In a sign of new openness, China’s Executive Vice Health Minister Gao Qiang warned Thursday that the country’s fight against AIDS is falling short. “China is still faced with arduous tasks,” he was quoted as saying by the government’s Xinhua News Agency.

He said 5,000 HIV and AIDS patients with “financial difficulties” will receive free treatment through next year, and that the central and local governments have committed $820 million to set up anti-AIDS units, plus more than $24 million a year for prevention and treatment.

New HIV infections in China have been growing annually by about 30 percent. Chinese officials and the United Nations warn that 10 million people could be infected by 2020 without more effective prevention.

HIV in China is mostly confined to intravenous drug users and people infected by the buying of tainted blood.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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