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WHO Welcomes China's Promotion of HIV Voluntary Counseling, Testing
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China's promotion of voluntary HIV counseling and testing has been welcomed by the World Health Organization (WHO), which said it was a valuable approach to fighting AIDS.

As one of the activities marking the World AIDS Day which falls on Friday, the Chinese Ministry of Health has set a "national week of HIV voluntary counseling and testing" from Dec. 1 to 7.

"Voluntary counseling and testing is an important access for people to be aware of the disease and hence to seek treatment, who have been living with HIV but do not know they were infected," said Dr. Henk Bekedam, WHO's China representative.

People infected with sexually transmitted diseases or tuberculosis need to be offered HIV counseling and testing by the hospital, suggested Bekedam in an interview with Xinhua. But the service should be based on consent of patients and confidentiality concerns, he noted.

The ministry has been publicizing voluntary counseling and testing and encouraging people at risk of HIV infection to get the service. By the end of June, health institutes had tested 871,089 people, and found 9,567 to be HIV positive, according to figures from the ministry.

Meanwhile, a pilot scheme to prevent mother-to-baby transmission has been carried out in 271 counties of 28 provinces, and by June 1.02 million pregnant women had been tested and 1,121 were found to be HIV positive.

Bekedam said the WHO and UNAIDS were working on global guidelines, which would soon be issued to encourage routine HIV testing in health care settings.

"The key conditions for this are to ensure that strong confidentiality assurances are in place and that patients are able to opt out of getting tested for HIV if they wish," said WHO spokeswoman in China Joanna Brent.

Another event to mark the World AIDS Day in China is the China Central Television's broadcast of a foreign documentary on AIDS on Friday and Saturday, called "A Closer Walk".

Bekedam welcomed this publicity as well, saying it would help more people know about AIDS and eliminate the social stigma of those infected.

"The documentary is a very informative program. It states the importance of providing support and treatment to AIDS patients at an early stage, highlights the dignity of the patients and tells the public to respect, rather than fear them," he said.

The Health Ministry reported last week that the number of people officially reported as HIV infected had risen 27.5 percent since the beginning of the year, to more than 180,000 at the end of October. It warned the disease was spreading from high-risk groups to the general public.

Referring to the latest figures, Bekedam said it was important to note the pattern of HIV transmission was changing. In the 1990s, China's main transmission channel was unsafe blood, but today unprotected sex was the main way, he said.

The ministry revealed that transmission through unprotected sex had increased, with the infection rate of sex workers rising from 0.02 percent in 1996 to one percent in 2005. Surveys show only 38.7 percent of Chinese sex workers use condoms.

"Therefore the fight against HIV/AIDS needs to continue raising public awareness, telling people to protect themselves, and meanwhile promoting condom use among sex workers," said Bekedam.

He suggested the campaign should be scaled up to cover more people, and at the meantime ensure the quality of the intervention programs that have been carried out.

The WHO has assessed some programs conducted in China both by itself and with the health ministry, including those on drug use and 100 percent condom promotion, according to the official.

(Xinhua News Agency December 1, 2006)

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