Speaking to Agence France-Presse (AFP) before heading to the world's biggest International AIDS Conference in Toronto he said, "We definitely need to improve our treatment. There's no question about it. We're talking to pharmaceuticals. We definitely want to buy second-line drugs."
The drugs offered under China's free treatment program, an ambitious plan launched three years ago to provide free anti-retroviral treatment to all HIV/AIDS patients, are older versions of the life-saving therapy drugs with strong side effects, but are the only type China can afford to manufacture without breaking international patent laws and suffering trade repercussions. "The drugs no longer work as effectively for them," said Zhang.
Zhang said that once the second-line drugs become available the patients will have more choices for treatment and also hoped the death rate will be reduced from the current estimated 10% of drug-taking patients. "In Europe and the United States, I believe the death rate is around three per 100 people on treatment each year. We hope in China we can come close to this," said Zhang.
Apart from getting better drugs, one of the biggest obstacles in treatment is finding patients in the vast country. While the government is providing drugs to all patients it finds who need them since it launched the program in 2003, it has provided treatment to only 26,000 people despite an estimated HIV/AIDS population of 650,000 by the end of 2005.
Commercial sex workers registering using fake names, making them hard to track down, and also some people affected with the disease refusing to be tested for fear of discrimination against themselves and their family have all contributed towards this problem.
Children especially have been hard to find. "Definitely there are a lot of kids who haven't been found and a lot of kids who died without knowing they had AIDS," Zhang told AFP. There are 1,880 children with AIDS in China according to official figures.
Children with HIV/AIDS in China either receive no treatment at all or have to resort to taking adult formulations, which is not ideal because the side effects are too strong. Meanwhile, the government is stepping up efforts to obtain children's AIDS medication, which it currently does not provide.