United Nations officials are raising the alarm in China that between 30 and 50 million of that country’s citizens are at risk of contracting HIV or AIDS.

The warning comes just a day after Chinese officials reported the spread of the disease has slowed.

Last week, according to news agency AFP, Chinese health minister Chen Zhu announced there were an estimated 50,000 new cases of HIV in 2007, bringing the total number of Chinese people living with HIV and AIDS to 700,000.

What worries UN officials, though, is the fact that heterosexual contact was found to be the top cause of new infections in 2007.

“It is remarkable and important to recognise that, because that shows the potential of that spread is quite significant,” Bernhard Schwartlander, China coordinator of UNAIDS, told AFP.

Schwartlander added that although the current overall number of HIV/AIDS cases seems relatively low for China’s 1.3 billion population, infections were rising in more and more areas.

“We may be seeing fewer infections than we have seen in earlier years, but that can change rapidly again,” Schwartlander warned.

Although Chinese leaders are more openly confronting the disease these days, after years of denying it was a problem, challenges remain.

In a press conference on Thursday, for instance, Chen said, “China’s HIV epidemic remains one of low prevalence overall but with pockets of high infection among specific sub-populations.”

At the same event, Chen praised the work of civil groups and mass organisations that have reached out to those with HIV/AIDS, prompting Ed Settle, HIV/AIDS Programme Manager for UNDP China, to tell the Associated Press that the Chinese government has, “come to the realisation that high risk groups need more attention and they recognise that civil society groups have more of a role in reaching out to the more vulnerable.”

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