China can't afford to let taboos hinder Aids fight

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 19 February, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 19 February, 2009, 12:00am

The news that Aids has become China's deadliest infectious disease, killing nearly 7,000 people in the first nine months of last year, lends added urgency to a national sex-education campaign launched on the mainland this week.

HIV/Aids and other sexually transmitted diseases are most often the result of ignorance or reckless behaviour. Authorities say HIV/Aids on the mainland is now transmitted mainly through sexual intercourse rather than intravenous drug use. It is preventable with good public health education, sensible precautions and responsible behaviour. Its deadly progress can be slowed by early detection and treatment with the latest antiretroviral drugs. All things being equal, the rate of new infections and deaths should be slowing.

However, mainland experts say the rate of new infections is growing and that the worst is yet to come. Official figures show the number of confirmed cases at the end of September was 264,302, a rise of more than 40,000 over a year. But United Nations health authorities estimated the number at 700,000 at the end of 2007. There has also been a 20 per cent rise in reported cases of another sexually transmitted disease, syphilis.

Sadly, ignorance is a factor. A cultural reticence to discuss sexual issues contributes to this. That is why the sex-education campaign launched this week is intended to break down taboos and get more people to seek treatment for sexually transmitted diseases and infertility. Campaign advisers say that only 7 per cent of women and 8 per cent of men seek immediate help for sexual problems, delaying treatment for some very serious diseases, and that more than one in three never seek help for them.

People's shyness when it comes to talking about sex remains a huge issue. Posters, competitions and a government television campaign to promote the use of condoms are among measures aimed at bringing sexual topics out of the closet.

Rapid economic growth, rising wealth and the mass migration of young people to the cities is bound to test social customs. Greater openness about sexual health will contribute to Beijing's goal of a harmonious society. Despite its great achievements, a country that aspires to lift hundreds of millions more out of poverty can ill afford the rising cost of HIV/Aids in terms of human lives and misery, social discrimination and economic losses.