China's Ministry of Health (MOH) has bad news. Unsafe sex is now touted as the main cause of new HIV infections in the country, overtaking drug abuse through injections for the first time. The finding is important more so as it now means that the virus is spreading from high-risk groups to the general public.
The report released jointly by the MOH and the China Center for Disease Control and Prevention gives that of the 70,000 new HIV infections recorded in 2005, almost half were through sexual contact. Figures for 2006 are not available.
Says Gao Qi, a project manager with Beijing-based China HIV/AIDS Information Network: "It's the first time since 1989, when the first HIV infection was detected, for sex to top the transmission list nationwide." He says that the new trend demonstrates further spread of the deadly virus and a tougher war against the epidemic.
In response to the challenge, the Chinese government is taking measures such as highlighting HIV intervention and prevention among sex workers. Sex workers are said to be the "bridge population" linking those at most risk for HIV with the general population.
Meanwhile, double standards are being acted out too. Authorities are accordingly cracking down on groups that support AIDS patients and orphans, in a bid to play down China's flaws before the news media's glare, as preparations for next year's Olympic Games begin.
In one incident, an activist in Henan province, where the nation's AIDS crisis hit early claims police ordered him out of his office Thursday and suggested that he vacate the area for his own safety.
"They said our organization was illegal and our activities were illegal," says Zhu Zhaowu of the China Orchid AIDS Project's office in Kaifeng in central Henan province.
In the same city, police stopped a conference for AIDS activists that had been scheduled for Aug. 19-20 by another nonprofit group, known as Grassroots.
That is not all. Earlier this month, police had reportedly banned two other AIDS conferences in the southern city of Guangzhou — one that was to bring legal scholars from three continents and another at Sun Yatsen University.
These barricades are disturbing foreign experts who seek to help China cope with the rising challenges of combating HIV infection.
Says Meg Davis, director of Asia Catalyst, a New York-based group and co-sponsor of the canceled Guangzhou legal conference: "Nothing about it makes any sense.
"China is at a crossroads both in terms of its fight against AIDS and its very new and fragile civil society," Davis adds.
Meanwhile, some domestic activists stress that China's leaders are bearing down on HIV/AIDS programs because they worry that international media attention in the run-up to next summer's Olympic Games will focus on aspects of China that leaders find embarrassing.
"They hope that there will be no unharmonious voices during the Olympics period," quotes Hu Jia, an activist and co-founder of a nonprofit Beijing AIDS group.
Yet, legal experts say this crackdown could backfire on China's efforts to combat HIV infection.
"If you suppress human rights, what happens is that people vulnerable to HIV are scared to be tested or seek treatment," warns Mark Heywood, founder of South Africa's AIDS Law Project and chairman of the UNAIDS Human Rights Reference Group, a body offering advice on the global epidemic.