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China's AIDS data probably accurate

A leading AIDS researcher said Thursday that China's recently lowered AIDS estimates were probably accurate since they were in line with other countries which have scaled back their numbers because of a change in the way data were collated.

China's leaders had denied AIDS was a problem in the past, leading some to doubt the country's most recent figures, which sharply lowered the estimated number of people living with the disease.

But David Ho, a well-known AIDS researcher who also runs a public awareness and prevention program in mainland China, said the new figures reflected a change in methodology used by the United Nations and the World Health Organization.

In 2004, China scaled back the estimated number of people infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, from nearly 1 million people to 840,000, and then further lowered the estimate to 650,000 in 2005.

"I have no basis to say whether the official AIDS estimates are right or not, but I feel that it is consistent with what the calculations are showing for the world," Ho said in a speech at the University of Hong Kong.

Worldwide, the estimated number of people infected with HIV fell from almost 40 million last year to about 33.2 million this year, global health officials said Tuesday.

Ho said the international organizations reduced their estimates by giving more weight to samples from low-risk instead of high-risk groups.

Previous estimates were based largely on the numbers of infected pregnant women at prenatal clinics, as well as projections of the AIDS rates for certain high-risk groups such as drug users to the entire population. Officials said those estimates were flawed and are now incorporating more data such as national household surveys.

In recent years, officials in China have confronted the disease more openly, promising anonymous testing, free treatment for the poor and a ban on discrimination against people with the virus.

China's traditional hotspots for AIDS are the central Henan province, where tainted blood helped spread the disease, and southwestern Yunnan province, where drug-use transmission is common.

Ho, however, urged officials to pay more attention to sexual transmission of the disease, which health experts have warned could cause a huge spike in numbers as infected sex workers pass the virus to clients who then pass it to their wives.

"I think we have to look out for that burgeoning epidemic," he said.

The U.N. has praised China's progress, but said authorities need to reach more patients and overcome a lack of cooperation from some government officials.

Ho has been researching AIDS for nearly 25 years and helped set up the Aaron Diamond AIDS research center at Rockefeller University in New York.

His research into how HIV replicates led to development of anti-retroviral treatment, which has drastically reduced mortality rates associated with AIDS since 1996.

His China AIDS Institute is a joint venture between Chinese and U.S. organizations to help address the disease in China.

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