President Hu Jintao made a symbolic visit to medics and Aids patients yesterday in an apparent attempt to ratchet up the fight against a raging epidemic that has killed at least 34,000 on the mainland.
The visit to Ditan Hospital, one of the top hospitals in the capital specialising in HIV/Aids treatment and research, represents a major policy shift that began in 2003. At that time, HIV/Aids was largely a taboo subject, associated with illegal blood collection and drug use.
Quoting official statistics, Xinhua reported at the weekend that the number of people living with HIV/Aids on the mainland had jumped by 50,000 from November last year to more than 260,000 at the end of September.
But the actual number of HIV infections on the mainland could be as high as 700,000, according to a projection from a joint Sino-UN assessment last year, which would mean 440,000 people living with the virus were not aware they have contracted it - a potential time bomb for further spread of the epidemic.
Mr Hu told medics at the hospital that HIV/Aids remained a burning issue facing doctors worldwide.
'To overcome it, we have to rely on the development of science and technology,' he said.
Gao Yanning , deputy director of Fudan University's HIV/Aids Research Centre, said the mainland leadership had paid great attention to the spread of Aids in recent years, but education in reproductive health should also been given priority to provide the public with adequate information for effective prevention.
Official statistics show that HIV/Aids infections via heterosexual sex accounted for 40.4 per cent of the total, against 11 per cent in 2005.
Hao Yang, deputy director of the Ministry of Health's Bureau of Disease Control, said the prevalence rate among men having sex with men had also jumped sharply from 0.4 per cent in 2005 to 4.9 per cent this year, but that in some cities that rate was as high as 15 per cent.
Professor Gao noted that the country was now no different from the rest of the world in the way HIV was spreading.
'So China has entered a difficult phase in tackling HIV/Aids because sex is a complicated issue,' he said.
The higher prevalence rate among gay men on the mainland has also alarmed health authorities. Wang Yu , director of the division overseeing prevention of sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/Aids at the China Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, said the next target would be gay men.
However, Wang Long - an official with China HIV/Aids CBO (community-based organisation) Network, a grass-roots HIV/Aids prevention network - said policy failures of low-level governments were largely to blame for the dramatic jump in infections among gay men.
Mr Wang said local health authorities had failed to acknowledge the fact that many gay men had multiple sex partners when formulating HIV/Aids policies.
'You need a different policy to those targeting drug addicts and sex workers to bring in much needed change in the way of thinking among men having sex with men, including some self-discipline,' Mr Wang said.