(October 2002) A recent UNAIDS report on HIV/AIDS in China warns of “the unfolding of an HIV/AIDS epidemic of proportions beyond belief,” and calls for urgent action to slow the spread of the virus.1 The number of people living with HIV/AIDS in China in 2000 was estimated at 600,000, but by the end of 2001, the number had soared to between 850,000 and 1 million. An estimated 70 percent of recent infections are related to injecting drug use. The worst-affected provinces border the Golden Triangle of Asian drug production, at the confluence of Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand. This region is a major drug trafficking route that runs north to mainland China, as well as west to Central Asia and Europe. UNAIDS has reported epidemics of HIV among injecting drug users in seven provinces, including Guangdong, a center of international trade. The report warns that nine additional provinces are on the brink of an epidemic, based on evidence that 20 percent or more of injecting drug users share needles.

Another HIV epidemic arose among rural villagers in several central Chinese provinces when villagers became infected after selling plasma to unregulated and often illegal collection centers. The collection centers pooled the blood from numerous donors, extracted the plasma, then reinjected the blood into the donors. Any HIV-infected blood in the pool then infected all the donors. AIDS researchers fear that hundreds of thousands of rural farmers contracted HIV from contaminated blood and unsafe collection practices.

HIV infection among the general population is gaining momentum through sexual transmission. Ignorance, discrimination, poverty, and gender inequality contribute to the potential for a large-scale epidemic in China, according to UNAIDS.

Peter Lamptey is president of the Family Health International (FHI) Institute for HIV/AIDS. Merywen Wigley is an associate technical officer at the FHI Institute for HIV/AIDS. Dara Carr is a technical director for health communication at PRB. Yvette Collymore is senior editor at PRB. Excerpted from PRB’s Population Bulletin“Facing the HIV/AIDS Pandemic” (PDF: 786KB).

For More Information

Read the UN Theme Group on HIV/AIDS in China’s report, “HIV/AIDS: China’s Titanic Peril,” at http://www.unaids.org