AIDS was the top fatal infection among the Chinese in 2008, followed by TB, rabies, hepatitis, and infant’s tetanus, said a government report released earlier this week by China’s Ministry of Health.

China’s state-run news agency, Xinhua reported that the official figures show that AIDS claimed 6,897 lives in China between January and September 2008, putting it at the top of the list of infectious diseases for that country for the first time, jumping from the third position it occupied three years ago.

There were 264,302 confirmed cases of people with HIV in September last year, said the Ministry of Health, 34,864 of whom have since died; five times the equivalent number of three years ago. The accumulated cases is nearly double the figure for 2005, which showed 135,630 Chinese had been infected by the virus.

Although the Chinese government did not elaborate on the reasons behind the jump in HIV/AIDS cases and deaths, a recent report in the Associated Press (AP) suggests that the Chinese government’s willingness to gradually acknowledge the presence of the disease could be a factor.

There has been no reaction to the figures from UNAIDS or the World Health Organization in Geneva, said the AP report, which mentions that UNAIDS estimates there are 700,000 people living with HIV in China, of whom around 85,000 have AIDS.

According to the Chinese authorities, AIDS came to China in 1982 and their first death from the disease was three years later.

Since 2003 there has been a government policy of “four frees, one care” for all HIV carriers and AIDS patients in China. “Four frees” are free testing for HIV, free counselling and treatment fro HIV infected people in rural areas, free drugs for all pregnant women with HIV, and free education for children orphaned by AIDS.

The “one care” is help for those impoverished by AIDS and the “elimination of AIDS-related discrimination”, said the Xinhua report.

According to the AP report, HIV spread in China was caused by tainted blood transfusions and unsanitary blood plasma, but a government report last year said that sex and drugs had now overtaken other causes of HIV spread in the country.

Earlier this week, AHN reported that the World Health Organization is predicting a rise in HIV/AIDS infection rates in Asia among men who have sex with men and this group urgently needs better access to healthcare if the rise is to be avoided.

WHO’s adviser on HIV/AIDS in the Western Pacific, Mssimo Ghidinelli told the press that the spread of HIV through men who have sex with men was much bigger than they first thought.

WHO suggests there are some 10 million men who have sex with men in Asia, the highest number of any region in the world.

At the WHO Technical Consultation on Health Sector Response to HIV/AIDS held in Hong Kong on Wednesday, York Chow, Hong Kong’s secretary for food and health, said that HIV prevention among men who have sex with men has been the main focus of the city’s five-year HIV/AIDS programme which runs from 2006 to 2011.

Chow said HIV rates among men who have sex with men have risen sharply in recent years, accounting for 30 per cent of the 300 to 400 new cases reported every year, reported Xinhua. Chow said most men who have sex with men don’t know their HIV status and unprotected sex is a major factor in the spread of the virus.

Government officials from throughout Asia plus representatives from Australia and New Zealand attended the conference.

Click here for WHO webpage on HIV/AIDS.

Sources: Xinhua, AP, AHN.

Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD