- The Washington Times - Friday, August 24, 2001

BEIJING — China admitted for the first time yesterday that tens of thousands of its citizens have been infected with the AIDS virus after selling their blood for money.
"The current statistics show that China at present has about 600,000 people with HIV infections and, according to our estimate figure, about 6 percent of those 600,000 people with HIV infections were infected through blood donations," Vice Minister of Health Yin Dakui told a news conference.
"The actual number should be about 30,000 to 50,000," Mr. Yin said.
He conceded that some experts believed that up to 100,000 people could be infected.
But independent analysts say the true scale of the tragedy, which has mainly afflicted impoverished rural areas in central China, could be far greater.
Yesterday was the first time the government had acknowledged that unsafe blood donations made up a significant percentage of infections, almost as high as infections from "unsafe" sex, which officials said make up 7 percent of total cases.
The government had insisted that most AIDS cases were from intravenous drug use, which it said was responsible for 71 percent of HIV infections.
Critics say the government had failed to recognize that many poor farmers might have contracted AIDS from selling blood.
Yesterday's news conference was also the first time the government had given figures about the scale of the scandal of infected blood, which was first exposed in 1999, but which the government refused to acknowledge until this month.
Beginning in the early 1990s, blood dealers used unhygienic methods to collect blood — often pooling blood, extracting plasma to be used for blood products and then injecting the remainder back into the donors.
Some independent experts believe as many as 1 million people could have been infected in this way in the central province of Henan alone.
The scandal came to light in Wenlou, a village in central Henan, where scores of people who donated blood a few years ago have died in the past three years.
After initially ignoring the plight of the village, government doctors tested 1,645 persons in the village this year and found that 318 were HIV-positive, an infection rate of 19.33 percent, Mr. Yin said after the news conference.
Of the total tested, 568 had sold blood before 1995 and nearly half of them — 244 — were HIV positive, Mr. Yin said.
He declined to say whether the sample of 1,645 was a random sample from the village of 3,000 villagers.
An international AIDS expert familiar with China said the infection rate in Wenlou was staggering and had serious implications for the rest of China.
"From international standards, the fact that this rate comes from nonsexual transmission, makes it one of the highest rates recorded," he said. "Wenlou is not unique. My guess is there are hundreds of communities across China where a large proportion of people were engaged in plasma selling as a form of income."
He urged China to do a comprehensive study to gauge the extent of the problem.
Despite a government ban on blood sales, illegal blood stations still exist, experts said.
"Even last month, they caught a huge underground blood-purchasing ring. It's still going on now," the international health official said.
In regions with a serious HIV epidemic, three to four in every 10,000 blood transfusions result in HIV infection, Mr. Yin said.
China estimated that more than 600,000 people in the country were infected with HIV by the end of 2000.
In the first six months of the year, 3,541 HIV infections were reported, a 67.4 percent increase from the same period last year, and the number of AIDS cases reported was 231, a nearly three-fold increase from the same period in 2000, according to the Health Ministry.
But Mr. Yin said the number of HIV infections had increased at a steady rate, by 100,000 annually since 1997. He did not explain whether the increase in the first half of this year was due to recent discovery of new HIV cases from infected blood.
He said the government hoped to keep the total number of people with HIV from exceeding 1.5 million by 2010.

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