AIDS Crisis In Heart Of China

AIDS virus

Xiao Li is an outcast because he is HIV positive.

"When I told my doctor, he wouldn't touch me," Li says, speaking in Chinese. "He was afraid of getting infected."

As CBS News Correspondent Barry Petersen reports, Li has a lot of company. The United Nations says ignorance and inaction in China are spawning one of the world's worst AIDS epidemics, exploding from a single case in 1985 to more than an estimated one million today.

"The projections are that you could have something like ten million people infected by the year 2010," says Siri Tellier, the U.N. Population Fund's China representative. Beyond that it is anybody's guess.

The spread of AIDS here is fueled by ignorance so deep that some people believe they can get infected by shaking hands. Millions have never even heard of the word AIDS. And with no idea what it is, they have no idea how to keep from getting it.

Scrambling to teach people, the government is running videos with cartoon condoms and messages so simple even the most uneducated peasants, it is hoped, will understand.

Chinese officials say their program is working, insisting that U.N. estimates of infection rates are too high, and that China is now waging a vigorous war against AIDS.

But still it spreads: by drug users sharing needles, through prostitution where few take precautions and through a nationwide blood supply now tainted with the AIDS virus.

"So the epidemic grows much faster in Asian countries than it did in Africa," says Kirsten Leitner, a U.N. coordinator in China.

And China's rudimentary health system has few modern drugs to fight AIDS, so doctors use traditional Chinese medicine and hope.

But hope isn't working. There are thousands of news cases daily - people condemned by a disease the Chinese once believed would never strike here and now cannot stop.