When asked if they knew how to prevent AIDS, a migrant couple in Beijing told Xinhua they did not know what the disease was.
"I have heard the word, AIDS. I guess it's a cancer," said Ran Shuhua. But she was incorrect. Her husband also didn't know what AIDS was or how to prevent it.
The couple's response is representative of what experts say is a big problem in China -- low awareness of HIV/AIDS among the country's 150 million migrants.
"The migrant group is sexually active but they do not know how to protect themselves from HIV/AIDS," said Wu Zunyou, director of the National Center for AIDS/STD Prevention and Control. "Relations involving multiple sexual partners have increased as male farmers flocked to cities, thus increasing the possibility of HIV transmission."
Ministry of Health studies show many migrant workers suffered from sexual deprivation while living apart from wives or lovers while doing jobs in bigger cities. They turned to prostitutes to fill their needs. This concerns Wu because sex has become the most common way to transmit AIDS in China.
The Ministry of Health announced in September that sex had overtaken intravenous drug use (IDU) as the main cause of HIV/AIDS transmission in the country.
On Sunday, the ministry said during the first nine months of this year, it had confirmed 44,839 new HIV/AIDS cases in China. There were also 6,897 people who died of the disease.
A total of 264,302 people in the country were reported to have contracted HIV, including 77,753 AIDS patients, by the end of September, while 34,864 people died of AIDS, the ministry said.
There was no figure on how many migrant workers in China had been infected with HIV, but figures from some cities and provinces indicated overall increases within the population.
As of Nov. 1, among the reported 5,635 HIV/AIDS cases in Beijing about 75 percent were people who came from other provinces.
A recent survey, done by the United Nations Population Fund, of 2,000 migrant youths in five Chinese cities, showed 72 percent had unprotected sex in their first sexual encounter.
"The problem is that migrant people often have unprotected sex and do not know condoms can prevent AIDS," said Zhang Konglai, deputy director of the AIDS Consulting Committee of the Ministry of Health.
"HIV/AIDS knowledge should be further popularized among the migrant population," said Zhang, who is also a professor with the Beijing Union Medical College.
Aware of the problem, government and non-governmental organizations launched several HIV/AIDS prevention campaigns targeting migrant workers.
China's State Council issued a national regulation on AIDS/HIV in 2006 and according to the AIDS Action Plan for the 11th Five-Year Plan (2006-2010), AIDS intervention programs will have been introduced to 90 percent of migrant workers by 2010.
In July, the International Labor Organization (ILO) and the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) jointly started a three-year project to provide free prevention education and training as well as treatment to migrant workers in Guangdong, Yunnan and Anhui provinces and the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region.
A separate campaign was jointly launched this week by ILO, ACFTU, the State Council AIDS Working Committee Office, China's Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security and the China Enterprise Confederation. It aimed to reduce discrimination against HIV/AIDS and to encourage safer sexual behaviors among male migrant workers.
Part of that education involved the production of a short film involving an HIV positive construction worker. It will be starred by popular actor and former migrant construction worker Wang Baoqiang and a real construction worker who carried HIV.
Besides education programs, the government installed automatic condom-vending machines in selected areas. For instance in Beijing, almost 3,000 machines had been set up at entertainment venues.
By the end of this year, the Beijing municipal public health bureau said automatic condom-vending machines would be installed at all construction sites with more than 500 workers.
Dalian City in northeast China's Liaoning Province provided 3,000 migrant workers with free HIV tests last year. It is not known how many tested positive.
"Successful HIV/AIDS prevention projects in certain areas should be promoted with joint efforts in all provinces and cities nationwide," said Zhang. "If we can prevent the spread of AIDS among the migrant population, the whole campaign in China will make remarkable progress."
"The migrant population needs more attention. What we have done is far from enough. They should be educated about the disease and encouraged to have safer sex," said an expert.
(Xinhua News Agency December 1, 2008)