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[BEIJING] China has taken 'bold steps' based on scientific evidence to control the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and has set an example for other countries to follow, say scientists.

An analysis of China's progress at tackling the epidemic, published in The Lancet last week (24 February), praised the country's strong political commitment to tackling HIV/AIDS — despite the government's initial reluctance to recognise the problem.

"These bold programmes have emerged from a process of gradual and prolonged dialogue and collaboration between officials at every level of government, researchers, service providers, policymakers and politicians, and have led to decisive action," say the authors.

Science played a pivotal role, enabling China to introduce effective intervention programmes such as needle exchanges for drug users and condom provision for visitors to brothels. Massive education campaigns aimed at reducing the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS have led to greater access to HIV testing and treatment.

China's severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic in 2003 (see How SARS sparked a research boom in China) also played a part, motivating the government to take aggressive policy action on HIV-related issues.

But the team, led by Roger Detels of the US-based University of California, Los Angeles, also warn that the poor policy enforcement in some local Chinese governments could impede further anti-HIV/AIDS efforts.

"As long as political leaders have high awareness of the epidemics, there will be very strong social mobilisation and organisation to react to HIV/AIDS," says Xiong Lei, former editor of China Features, who led a nationwide public survey on HIV/AIDS.

Xiong told SciDev.Net that non-government organisations and the media have played increasingly important roles in informing policymakers and the public about HIV/AIDS, but added that further transparency at the local level is still needed.

China's initial, unsuccessful response to HIV/AIDS in the early and mid 1990s included preventing anyone HIV-positive from entering the country.

High-risk groups such as drug users and prostitutes were also targeted; drug and prostitution laws were strengthened and the authorities were allowed to isolate HIV-positive drug users and prostitutes in labour camps.

Link to full paper in The Lancet*

*Requires free registration

Reference: The Lancet, 369, 679 (2007)