China AIDS rate slows, main transmission now sex

BEIJING (Reuters) - The rate of new HIV/AIDS infections in China is slowing and is now mainly being transmitted through sex, which the government could tackle with a circumcision campaign, the health minister said on Thursday.

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The country will have an estimated 50,000 new infections in 2007, compared with 70,000 in 2005, though groups like men who have sex with men are increasingly at risk, according to a report by the State Council, or Cabinet, and the United Nations.

That will mean there will be about 700,000 people living with HIV/AIDS this year in China, up from an earlier estimate of 650,000.

Of the new infections, 44.7 percent will come from heterosexual transmission, 12.2 percent from men having sex with men, and 42 percent from intravenous drug use, the report said.

In the past, most infections were caused by intravenous drug use.

“At present, the AIDS epidemic in China continues to spread, but at a slower rate,” Health Minister Chen Zhu told a news conference. “Sexual transmission is now the main route for the spread of AIDS.”

Chen said more focus needed to be put on traditionally marginalized groups, like the gay community and drug users, though he added condom use by sex workers had risen from 14.7 percent in 2001 to 41.4 percent last year.

Yet the report found risky behavior by men who have sex with men remained widespread, with just a third using condoms for anal sex.

Chen said that with infections now primarily coming via sexual transmission, a male circumcision campaign could not be ruled out in China.

Studies have shown that circumcision could reduce the risk of HIV infection by up to 60 percent, though it does not offer total protection from the virus.

The World Health Organisation has already recommended it as one of the ways developing countries, especially in Africa, could use to fight the spread of AIDS.

“This is a technical question. I think our experts will evaluate it,” Chen later told Reuters. “Even before the AIDS era some children in China were already being circumcised.”

Circumcision rates are low in China compared to Asian countries like South Korea or Japan, where the foreskin is often removed at birth for hygiene reasons, or Muslim countries like Indonesia which practice it for religious reasons.

China’s Muslim minority, concentrated in the far western region of Xinjiang, likewise circumcise their male children, normally as they reach puberty.

Chen said that were the government to decide to promote circumcision among the wider population, he did not think it would run into much opposition or cultural problems.

“As long as there is evidence it is effective, I don’t think it would be an issue,” he said.

Editing by Jeremy Laurence