Annan: China on the brink of AIDS epidemic
The Borneo Post Tuesday October 15 2002
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DOCTORATE DEGREE FOR ANNAN ... Annan receives a portrait from Zhang Junsheng (right), secretary general of the Communist Party Zhejiang Committee after he was conferred with an honorary doctorate degree at Zhejiang University in Hangzhou yesterday. Annan's visit to China is part of his programme of annual visits to the five permanent Security Council members. After China, he will also visit Mongolia and five central Asian republics.-Reuters photo

BEIJING: UN Secretary General Kofi Annan warned China yesterday that it "stands on the brink of an explosive AIDS epidemic" and must act immediately to halt the potential catastrophe.

"There is no time to lose if China is to prevent a massive further spread of HIV/AIDS. China is facing a decisive moment," Annan told an audience of university students in the central city of Hangzhou.

"The epidemic has become a moving target, and is at risk of spinning out of control."

Annan's speech was the most high-profile international warning yet to China's leaders that they need to tackle the crisis, and follows a UN report in June which said the country faced an "AIDS catastrophe".

Dealing with AIDS would take "leadership at every level", Anna said in a speech at Zhejiang University,. where he received an honorary doctorate.

"It requires breaking the silence and stigma that surrounds the disease," he said.

Annan, who arrived in China late Sunday, flew to Beijing later in the day for talks with President Jiang Zemin and Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan which were also expected to cover the current international crisis over Iraq.

He met Jiang at a formal ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in central Beijing on Monday afternoon before the pair got down to private discussions.

China, one of five permanent UN Security Council members, has expressed disquiet over US calls for military action against Iraq over alleged weapons of mass destruction, and has called for a political settlement.

Foreign AIDS activist groups have long accused Chinese leaders of trying to cover up the country's crisis over the virus and of doing little to help sufferers.

In recent months, however, even Beijing has begun to acknowledge the gravity of the problem. In an unusually frank assessment, a top Beijing health official warned last month that by the end of the decade there could be 10 million Chinese HIV carriers. Annan urged his audience of around 500 students to speak openly about the illness, which remains a deep stigma in China for its popular associations with homosexuality and drug use.

"Silence is death," he said. Failure to deal with the problem would cause a host of both social and ecic problems, Annan warned. "Clearly, China has everything to gain if it can stem the tide of the AIDS epidemic and everything to lose if it fails to do so."

Over the weekend, a human rights group urged Annan to press Chinese leaders over the harassment of groups working with AIDS patients inside China.

In late August, prominent Chinese AIDS campaigner Wan Yanhai was detained for four weeks on charges of allegedly leaking state secrets through his work.

Wan had been particularly active in publicising the plight of rural communities devastated by the virus after selling blood to unsanitary government-approved blood collectors during the 1980s and 1990s. -AFP