BEIJING (Reuters) - The world marked AIDS Day on Wednesday,
promising to eradicate ignorance and prejudice about a disease
that was at first dismissed by many as a Western evil confined to
drug users, homosexuals and prostitutes.
China, criticized for its slow initial response to HIV/AIDS, put
on a public display of commitment to fighting a disease which the
United Nations fears could infect 10 million Chinese by 2010.
In the western Indian city of Ahmedabad, sex workers got AIDS day
off to an early start by tying red ribbons to the uniforms of
policemen on Tuesday to spread awareness.
China's battle against the spread of HIV had been hampered by
politics, but on Tuesday, President Hu Jintao shook hands with an
AIDS patient and Premier Wen Jiabao called for "unremitting
efforts" against the epidemic.
A picture of Hu wearing a red silk ribbon on his chest as he met
the patient at a Beijing hospital was splashed on the front pages
of major newspapers. He was accompanied by Vice Premier Wu Yi and
Beijing's Communist Party boss Liu Qi.
"During the visit to the Beijing You'an Hospital, Hu also urged
the whole society to phase out discrimination and estrangement
toward AIDS patients," the official Xinhua news agency reported.
Across the world, activists and governments were due to mark the
day with events drawing attention to the disease and promoting
Wen said China had made "remarkable progress" in HIV/AIDS
prevention and control, but acknowledged that the country "still
faces a stark situation in this field," according to Xinhua.
He urged governments at all levels to give priority to the issue
by "utilizing all sorts of resources and conscientiously
implementing all prevention and control policies and measures."
Local Chinese officials have a mixed track record of acting on
PRAISE FOR CHINA
China is ranked alongside India and Russia as countries outside
Africa which are most at risk from AIDS.
Khalid Malik, resident representative of the U.N. Development
Program in Beijing, praised Chinese leaders on Wednesday for
their new-found zeal.
"With Chinese top leaders' strong commitment, laws and
regulations have been revised, free treatment is being provided
to AIDS patients in poverty and in rural areas and overall
awareness of AIDS is being raised through health education,"
Malik said in a statement to be delivered later.
"This year's World AIDS Day is an occasion to recognize the
burden that women and girls bear in the age of HIV/AIDs but
equally to celebrate their achievements in the fight against the
epidemic," he quoted U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan as saying.
Antonio Costa, executive director of the U.N. Office on Drugs and
Crime, said: "The world can no longer afford to ignore the
enormity of the HIV epidemic.
"The time has come to strike back at a killer that is transmitted
by drug use and sex, as well as by ignorance and denial," he said
China estimates it has 840,000 people with HIV or AIDS, but some
experts say there may be that many alone in the central province
of Henan, where a blood-selling scandal in the mid-1990s led to
thousands of infections.
In India's Ahmedabad, members of voluntary groups working among
AIDS patients planned to tie ribbons made by HIV-positive women
to people to spread awareness against the deadly disease.
"Women will be at the center of campaign this year. If they are
educated and prevented from contracting the diseases, it
minimizes the risk in a family," said Laxman Malodia, an
India has over 5.1 million people infected with HIV, the
second-largest number after South Africa.
A joint assessment prepared by a U.N. team and experts from
China's State Council, or cabinet, said China was making progress
with actions such as promoting condoms, providing some free
anti-retroviral therapy and nearly doubling it budget for AIDS to
810 million yuan ($98 million) for 2004.
But the report also said China's key challenge was implementing
such policies in the country's far-flung and often impoverished
(Additional reporting by Thomas Kutty Abraham in AHMEDABAD and
Kamil Zaheer in NEW DELHI)