More than 2,700 participants from 20 nations - doctors, social policy experts, educators and Chinese government officials - are participating in the four-day conference, which also will explore ways to reduce other sexually transmitted diseases across the country.
The goal: to slow the growth of new infections to 10 percent per year by 2005. Experts estimate that more than 600,000 Chinese - in a population of 1.26 billion - had been infected by HIV by the end of 2000.
"This is an opportunity to explore the way forward," Zhu Zhongshan, head of the Beijing Health Department, said in an address at the opening ceremony.
Participants - from besuited bureaucrats to military men to stylish youths in black turtlenecks and leather - filled the Beijing International Convention Center with the looped red ribbons that have come to symbolize the worldwide fight against AIDS.
Also in evidence: kiosks promoting everything from blood centrifuge machinery to sterilization equipment to condoms, advertised rather incongruously with outsized cartoons deployed near a large Chinese flag. Inside the auditorium, next to moody public-service ads depicting the dangers of unprotected sex in the big city, slides flashed China's new slogans: "AIDS: I care, do you?" and "Together, we can."
AIDS has long been a reluctant subject of the Chinese government, critics say. But alarm over the disease's 30 percent annual growth rate is changing attitudes.
In mid-August, Vice Health Minister Yin Dakui chided local officials for not recognizing the dangers of AIDS. China faces "a very serious epidemic of HIV-AIDS," he warned at a rare news conference. And the official Xinhua News Agency described this week's conference as an effort to "spur vigilance against the disease in all corners of Chinese society."
Peter Piot, executive director of UNAIDS, the Joint U.N. program on HIV/AIDS, praised the Chinese government's initiative as indicative of progress and "an important source of hope for future response to the epidemic." But solid actions must follow good words, he said.
"It is probably not an exaggeration to say this is a historic event in terms of response to AIDS in China," Piot said. "But all this is clearly not enough yet. ... There is still a need to break the silence about AIDS in all levels of society and in all places in the whole country."
Needle sharing by intravenous drug users established the disease in China, and the flourishing sex trade has fanned it, the government says. Officials also say health authorities failed to protect the blood supply in some areas, causing the disease to spread in the countryside.
The national conference, which runs through Friday, will discuss government plicies on prevention and treatment, health education and cooperation between different government departments.
Speakers at the opening ceremony - and at a news conference afterward - stressed the importance of distributing information and described the mass media as a crucial player in such efforts. However, reporters were barred from the conference itself, reflecting China's continuing ambivalence in its efforts to halt the spread of AIDS without causing itself embarrassment.
That effort, participants said, now involves taking the health-care efforts not only to the streets, but into the offices of government officials reluctant to acknowledge the problem.
"What we need most at the moment is a better awareness of the urgency," said Dai Zhicheng, deputy director of the China Preventative Medicine Association, a non-governmental organization. "We must tell not only leaders but people from all walks of life."
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