Unprotected sex has for the first time overtaken intravenous drug use as the main cause of new HIV infections in China, according to the latest report released by the Chinese Ministry of Health.

The findings suggest the virus is spreading from high-risk groups to the general public.

Of the 70,000 new HIV infections recorded in 2005, 49.8 percent were through sexual contact, according to the report which was released jointly by the MOH and the China Centre for Disease Control and Prevention. Figures for 2006 are not available.

Injected drug use ranked second, accounting for 48.6 percent of the total.

Nevertheless, drug abuse was the dominant transmission route for the 650,000 people living with HIV, according to official figures.

“It’s the first time since 1989 when the first HIV infection was detected for sex to top the transmission list nationwide,” Gao Qi, a project manager with Beijing-based China HIV/AIDS Information Network told the China Daily.

The new trend indicates a further spread of the deadly virus and a tougher war against the epidemic, he added.

To address the challenge, the government is taking a number of measures to highlight HIV intervention and prevention among sex workers, deemed the “bridge population” linking those at most HIV risk and the general population.

Surveys in recent decades show one out of 10 sexually active men have been involved with a prostitute at least once, Pan Suiming, a leading sociologist at Renmin University of China told China Daily.

“As it’s hard to spot clients who buy sex, intervention has to begin with sex workers,” Tan Xiaodong, professor at the School of Public Health of Wuhan University told China Daily.

Inspired by the 100 percent condom-use campaign targeting sex workers in Thailand, the Chinese government has initiated a similar program.

Some provinces like Yunnan and Henan have also instituted mandatory HIV tests for sex workers.

Globally, 80 percent of the total 39.5 million HIV-positive people contracted the disease through sex, according to the World Health Organisation.

“The new trend in China is in line with the international situation,” Tan said.

In addition, there has been a continuous spike of HIV prevalence among gay Chinese men.

About 7.3 percent of new infections through sex are among gay men, said the 2005 report, making the long-ignored group a focus of prevention efforts.

A separate survey conducted by China’s Centre for Disease Control and Prevention found that although teenagers in China were having sex at an earlier age, 40 percent did not use protection the first time and they had little AIDS education.

“They know little about HIV/AIDS, let alone preventative measures,” An Jiaao, of the centre’s National Institute for Health Education, told China Daily.

HIV/AIDS became a major problem for China in the 1990s when hundreds of thousands of poor farmers, mostly in the central province of Henan, became infected through botched blood-selling schemes.