The Chinese Ministry of Health is to devise an HIV prevention policy after a rise in infections among the country’s gay population, it announced today.

Prevention measures will target MSM (men who have sex with men) and extend condom use, Xinhua news agency reports.

The ministry estimates that there are five to ten million gay men in China among a population of one billion, most of them living in cities.

Other estimates have put the figure at 40 million.

Research has found that some are married and more than half have more than one sexual partner.

China has a conservative culture, partly due to Communist repression, but laws have been slowly relaxed, with homosexuality effectively being decriminalised in 1997. Homosexuality was seen a mental disorder in China until 2001.

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

Recent research found that up to 6.5% of MSM are HIV positive.

The Health ministry will undertake testing and treatment for other sexually transmitted diseases, AIDS testing and prevention training within the gay community during 2008.

PinkNews.co.uk reported in 2006 that China approved its first gay and lesbian organisation, Happy Together, which counts professors, teachers and students among its members.

In October Chinese academics called for the country’s estimated 40 million homosexuals to be given the right to marry.

Professor Li Yinhe, a sociologist and campaigner for LGBT rights, and Zhang Beichuan, a leading scholar of homosexuality, have been at the forefront of a campaign to allow same-sex marriage in China.

She previously attempted to submit same-sex marriage proposals to the National People’s Congress, China’s highest legislative body, but did not succeed due to lack of support from delegates.

Campaigners say that gay marriage would also promote safe sex and prevent the spread of HIV/ AIDS.