China Increasingly Open About Need to Tackle AIDS

China's attitude toward AIDS and the HIV virus that causes it has changed dramatically since it finally admitted two years ago that the country was facing a serious problem. Now the government in Beijing is eager to prove it is tackling the spread of the virus. However, many say the work being done in China is far from enough.

In Beijing, an appreciative audience is watching the premier of "Living Positive", a docudrama on HIV/AIDS. Inspired by real stories of people living with the disease, the production is a collaboration between foreign and Chinese AIDS activist groups.

The film will be distributed across China, as an educational tool in the fight against the disease.

Isolda Morillo directed "Living Positive" for the Chinese HIV/AIDS Information Network. She says it is vital to raise awareness of the disease among Chinese people.

"I interviewed many people about HIV/AIDS," said Ms. Morillo. "They all said, 'There is little education, people don't know about this'. A lot of people said 'I am not a person who is sexually active but a few times it was unsafe, so I got contaminated, if I only had known how to prevent it.' So maybe we need to talk about this, because it is urgent."

Ms. Morillo agrees that compared to a few years ago, China has come a long way in tackling the spread of the virus. At least now, she says, a film such as hers can be shown in schools and factories to help educate people.

In 2003, for the first time, Beijing admitted it had a serious problem with the disease. International media reports on the numbers living with the virus in China helped push the country out of the closet.

That year, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao was photographed shaking hands with an AIDS patient in a Beijing hospital - conveying a message that the country should eliminate the stigma against HIV/AIDS sufferers.

China says it has 840,000 HIV/AIDS cases among its 1.3 billion population, but experts believe the number is much higher.

The WHO has said the virus is spreading rapidly through China and estimates 10-million people may be infected there by 2010.

But, ahead of The World AIDS day (December 1), the Chinese Health Ministry has pledged to keep the number of people infected to below 1.5 million by 2010, through strong preventive measures.

Health Minister Gao Qiang told reporters Wednesday halting the spread of the disease is essential for the country's development. "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," he saidl

Intravenous drug use and unsafe sex are the main channels for the spread of the virus in China.

Li Bian, an editor with the China Sexology Association, thinks sex education in rural China is currently inadequate.

"I am surprised there are people who still don't know anything about safe sex - this is very basic information. In China there are a lot of sex workers, but this considered a gray area; the government hasn't touched it much," he said. "Sure there are some experimental projects, such as giving these sex workers an AIDS test, or handing them condoms, but overall, the effort is still lacking."

China's current measures to prevent the virus spreading and help those infected include free medication for AIDS patients, cracking down on drug related crimes, and tightening up on blood donation procedures.