One of China’s major cities risks facing an AIDS epidemic reminiscent of San Francisco 25 years ago if authorities do not act, a study warns.

British Sociological Association member, Jennifer Chapman, will argue that gay men in Shenzhen require a better understanding of sexual health, at the organisation’s Medical Sociology Group Annual Conference in Edinburgh which starts today.

Her study warns, “There is a long-standing tradition in public health of designing disease prevention programmes that assume objective rationality among the public.

“Experts surmise that if we give the public enough information about the (potential) negative consequences of their bad habits, they will forgo these bad habits.

“We see this in everything from smoking, (you will acquire lung cancer if you do not stop), to safe sex campaigns, (you will acquire HIV/AIDS if you do not use condoms).

“However, it is well-recognised that people do not change their behaviour due only to an increased awareness of their risks and perhaps less recognised that the people act in culturally specific, individually-motivated ways, monitored by their emotions and not as cold, calculating, objective bystanders to their actions.”

The study claims China is experiencing one of the most rapidly expanding HIV epidemics in the world.

It states that approximately one million people in China are living with the virus and 10-15 million new infections are predicted by 2010, “This fate is preventable but efforts to mitigate the looming AIDS catastrophe in China are limited by poor design,” the study says.

“Current HIV/AIDS prevention activity is premised on this traditional view that knowledge is the largest predictor of behaviour. There has been no research into the context of behaviour (change) in the Chinese setting and prevention techniques imported from the West have not been adequately adapted. “

The research is set in Shenzhen, a major Chinese city bordering Hong Kong, culturally juxtaposed between East and West, marked by a its young and predominantly migrant population, expansive commercial sex industry and reputation as a haven for men who have sex with men (MSM) from China’s conservative countryside.

The findings suggest that Shenzhen is experiencing disproportionate increases in HIV/AIDS among gay men, it says, “We are seeing the development of a culture in Shenzhen reminiscent of San Francisco 25 years ago which is challenging traditional Chinese values of conformism and acquiescence.”

The study uses qualitative interviews to better understand how men who have sex with men and male sex workers in Shenzhen perceive and manage risks associated with their sexual health.

It is hoped the work will both advance understanding of individual risk management behaviour and contribute to a HIV/AIDS prevention strategy for Shenzhen.

Some of the first reports of AIDS came from the popular gay areas of San Francisco in 1981, the San Francisco Chronicle described it at the time as “a mysterious outbreak of a sometimes fatal pneumonia among gay men.”

In reaction bus drivers wore masks to protect themselves and sufferers were interviewed in sound proof rooms so not to infect microphones amid fear and misunderstanding of the virus.