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Fighting Against AIDS

The 16th World AIDS Day is confronted with a gloomy picture that shows the deadly virus is not abating, but spreading even faster.

Deaths and new cases of infection have reached unprecedented highs in 2003 and are likely to rise still further, according to a report jointly released last week by the United Nations and the World Health Organization (WHO).

This year, some 5 million people have been infected, bringing the total number of people living with HIV/AIDS to 40 million worldwide. At the same time, some 3 million died of the disease.

The epidemic continues to expand, far from reaching a plateau, health experts warn.

While Sub-Saharan Africa remains the worst affected region, the Asia-Pacific area -- home to 60 per cent of the world's population -- is shaping up as the new battleground in the fight against the disease, the report indicates.

Unless effective action is taken, some countries in the region may face major epidemics.

China may become one of them should the country not be responsive to the crisis.

Latest statistics put the number of people with HIV/AIDS in China at 840,000, including 80,000 AIDS patients.

Worse, the momentum for further spreading of the numbers is continuing, and may well be accelerating.

Though the current prevalence in the country is still low, the increased infection rate plus the vast population in the nation points to a possible catastrophic explosion in cases in the absence of stepped up efforts to fight the disease.

Chinese AIDS experts have raised the alarm that people living with HIV/AIDS may soon soar to 10 million by 2010 without efficient prevention methods. While the number could be trimmed down to 3 million if prevention methods work, action, and only action, can make the difference.

Due to ignorance and lack of commitment among some, the disease has already caused great human suffering, economic losses and social devastation. Yet waiting ahead could be losses multiplied exponentially if the virus is not kept at bay.

The situation is grave, and the challenge is tough. China cannot afford a delay in making a serious commitment to the fight and taking action.

Initiatives have indeed been rolled out, and they must be followed.

Executive Health Vice-Minister Gao Qiang recently pledged that the government will provide free medical treatment to HIV carriers and AIDS patients in rural areas or those among the urban poor. He promised to ensure legal rights and interests of HIV/AIDS victims.

He said that local governments will be held directly accountable if loopholes in their work lead to serious epidemics in their regions. He also called for intensified government intervention into behaviour found to be at risk.

This is viewed as the strongest commitment to date by the government in tackling the epidemic.

The plan, if carried out well, will surely be a great push forward in fighting HIV/AIDS. It should herald more and stronger resolution from the government.

Lack of information on the virus has proven to be a major element that fuels the spread of HIV/AIDS. Aggressive campaigns should be undertaken to promote knowledge about HIV/AIDS to even people in the most remote areas, especially among illiterates and those practising unsafe sexual behaviour.

More important, efforts from all walks of life are needed to create a friendly atmosphere for people living with HIV/AIDS.

Prejudice, rejection, hurt and ostracism are some of the most painful parts of HIV infection which even a miracle drug can not overcome, a WHO official explained.

Stigma and discrimination constitute one of the greatest barriers to preventing further infections, providing adequate care, support and treatment and alleviating the epidemic's impact.

The same sort of national commitment and resources used to fight SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), if used toward fighting HIV/AIDS, should help us find an effective way to combat this disease, too.

(China Daily December 1, 2003)

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