China stops denying AIDS epidemic
By staff and wire reports
BEIJING, China -- After denying for years that AIDS is a problem, Chinese leaders have begun to acknowledge the scale of the country's epidemic.
On Wednesday China said for the first time it has sent health experts to an AIDS-stricken village where residents caught the virus when they sold their blood.
This marks a dramatic reversal of the policy towards AIDS, which has been to keep the scandal under wraps, suppress any news relating to it and keep activists away.
In the past week China has launched a drive to curb the spread of HIV through tainted blood transfusions amid warnings that an AIDS epidemic is reaching dangerous levels.
It has said it will launch a national publicity campaign, begin screening donated blood and crack down on criminal gangs, called "bloodheads."
Chinese officials have reported that 23,905 people have AIDS as of March.
But Health Ministry experts say some 600,000 Chinese are infected, with the numbers growing by more than 30 percent a year.
The United Nations has said China will have 10 million or more AIDS sufferers by 2010 unless it acts decisively.
In its latest move, China says it is trying to help thousands of villagers in the central province of Henan, who were infected with AIDS by an unsanitary local blood-buying industry.
It is the first reported visit to the area by officials since state media published controversial reports earlier this year of HIV infection rates of up to 65 percent in Henan villages.
The Health Ministry is setting up a clinic that will be open 24 hours a day in the worst-hit village of Wenlou, the Communist Party newspaper People's Daily said.
But it did not give any details of what treatment would be available, or whether the team would visit nearby villages with a high infection rate.
Villagers say they contracted AIDS by selling blood, which was pooled in a large tub then stripped of plasma -- the liquid in blood -- before being pumped back into them.
Villagers began selling blood in the 1980s, earning about 40 yuan (5 collars) a visit.
But a doctor who publicized the outbreak has criticized the move as inadequate, saying the clinic was a cosmetic gesture that would not save lives.
"AIDS in this area is no longer a disease that can be controlled by such measures. The affected regions are too huge," Dr. Gao Yaojie told The Associated Press.
Gao said the only way to contain the disease was through a long-term, massive education program aimed mainly at children.
Gao said in May that local officials had blocked her application for a passport to visit the United States in order to accept an award for her anti-AIDS activism.
Reuters contributed to this report.
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