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China Highlights Dangers and Promotes Prevention in Battle Against AIDS
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Guo Weigui, a trained doctor, spends most of his time visiting beauty salons, bars, massage parlors and saunas where he tries to ensure that hospitality industry workers use condoms.

Guo works for the disease control and prevention center in downtown Beihai, a coastal city in southern Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region that receives about 4 million tourists a year. He also leads a 15-member AIDS prevention team that hands out condoms and leaflets on how to prevent AIDS and venereal diseases.

"Our team covers 90 percent of the hospitality services in downtown Beihai and 80 percent of their workers," said Guo. "We make sure each worker is visited at least once every two months."

Beihai reported the first HIV infection case in 1998 and the number of HIV-positive people had risen to 93 by last October. "The figure is the lowest for the 14 cities in Guangxi, because we started intervention earlier than others," said Guo.

Guo said 73 percent of the hospitality industry workers they visit use condoms now, compared with 30 percent when they started to intervene in 1999.

But initially their actions drew a very poor welcome. "Some people were hostile and even tore up the leaflets we handed out right under our noses," he said. "When I first visited a beauty salon with a colleague, no one looked up at us from the mah-jong table. We waited for an hour, then left and came back the next day."

They visited the salon at least five times before one of the girls broke the ice with "why don't you take a seat and leave your leaflets on the table?"

"So step by step, they softened and we were able to strike up a conversation," said Guo. "When they understood we were there for their good, the girls abandoned their hostile attitude."

Today, Guo and his colleagues can drop in at any time for friendly chats with the girls, some of whom have followed their advice to take regular checkups.

Guo's team also host parties and karaokes at hospitality facilities. Included in the sessions are quiz games about how to prevent AIDS and other venereal diseases.

Many other Chinese cities have laid down the law for prostitutes, insisting on 100 percent condom use to stop the spread of AIDS.

Harbin in northeastern Heilongjiang Province went one step further: it provided an AIDS prevention training program last year to 180 female commercial sex workers who work for the local hospitality industry.

The program, which taught sex workers about AIDS prevention and the importance of using condoms, caused a social outcry as some citizens viewed it as open recognition of the illegal sex industry, or even an encouragement of prostitution.

"Protecting sex workers from AIDS is an urgent task which does not contradict China's ban on prostitution," said Wen Yingchun, director of the AIDS prevention and control institute under Harbin's disease control and prevention center.

Local police authorities said AIDS prevention training courses should in no way be construed as a sign that the sex industry will be legalized.

The Ministry of Health said China had 183,733 HIV/AIDS cases at the end of October, up nearly 30 percent from 144,089 at the end of 2005, and the virus is seemingly spreading from high-risk groups to the general public.

In Beihai, 24 new HIV-positive cases were reported in 2006. Besides Guo and his official AIDS prevention team, grass-roots volunteer groups hand out condoms and brochures at the city's railway stations, wharves, construction sites and communities, local health authorities told Xinhua.

Many other Chinese cities have taken HIV/AIDS prevention to the masses.

Construction workers at the building site of Beijing's CCTV tower were given condoms and brochures touting safe sex and HIV/AIDS prevention on the eve of Dec. 1, World AIDS Day.

In December, 5,000 Beijing taxi drivers handed out HIV/AIDS information leaflets to passengers.

The total number of cases in China -- taking into account those who are unaware that they carry the HIV virus -- is probably around 650,000, according to estimates by experts from the United Nations and the Ministry of Health.

The Ministry said by Oct. 31 last year, 12,464 people had died in China as a result of illnesses associated with the HIV virus.

(Xinhua News Agency January 17, 2007)

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