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World AIDS Day warning on heterosexual transmission

Pretoria — Calls for an end to discrimination against sufferers rang out on World AIDS Day on Tuesday as South Africa, the country worst affected by the pandemic, rolled out a new battle plan to beat the virus.

With more than 33 million people round the world carrying the virus, China said the incidence among homosexuals was gaining pace while there were warnings in Europe that heterosexual contacts had become the chief transmission route.

And French first lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy lent her star power to the global campaign against AIDS by calling for greater efforts to beat mother-to-child HIV transmission.

In China President Hu Jintao called on people in the world’s most populous nation not to discriminate against those with HIV.

You "must care more and better for AIDS patients and people living with HIV, and in particular guide society into not discriminating against them," Hu told AIDS prevention volunteers in Beijing, comments broadcast by state television.

Levels of stigma and discrimination against sufferers remain high in large parts of Asia such as South Korea where many foreign workers are forced to undergo mandatory HIV tests to secure visas.

In an annual report released last week, the UN said that around two million people died of the disease in 2008, bringing the overall toll to around 25 million since the virus was first detected three decades ago.

Almost 60 million people have been infected by the HIV virus since it was first recorded, the UNAIDS agency said in its report, putting the total number of people currently living with the virus at 33.4 million.

South Africa remains the world’s worst-hit country, a status which many campaigners have attributed to a history of "denialism" within government.

President Jacob Zuma, who was then head of the National AIDS Council, provoked ridicule three years ago when he said that he had showered to wash away the risk of AIDS after having sex with an HIV-positive woman.

But since then, Zuma has been trying to reshape his image and used World AIDS Day to announce a raft of new measures to rein in the disease that has hit 5.7 million of South Africa’s 48 million people.

"Let today be the dawn of a new era. Let there be no more shame, no more blame, no more discrimination and no more stigma," he said in his speech.

The most eye-catching announcement from Zuma was that all babies with HIV would receive anti-retroviral treatment.

"All children under one year of age will get treatment if they test positive," Zuma said.

He also announced expanded treatment for pregnant women, in a bid to prevent the transmission of HIV to their children.

And he said that he planned to be tested again and urged the public to follow his lead.

"I am making arrangements for my own test. I have taken HIV tests before, and I know my status. I will do another test soon," he said. "I urge you to start planning for your own tests."

China’s health ministry said homosexual transmission of the disease was gaining pace and called for health authorities nationwide to step up prevention work.

"Sexual contact continues to be the main channel of transmission with the speed of homosexual transmission clearly increasing," the health ministry said.

"This is a new situation that we need to pay attention to."

By the end of October 2009, China had 319,877 registered cases of HIV/AIDS, including 48,000 new cases this year, while nearly 50,000 people have died in China to AIDS, the ministry said.

The ministry has estimated that up to 740,000 people in China live with HIV.

But in a sign the epidemic is mutating differently in other parts of the world, authorities in the Ukraine said heterosexual contacts had become the chief transmission route for the HIV virus.

"Heterosexual contact has become the chief transmission path as the number of new cases transmitted through drug consumption has dropped," the UNAIDS coordinator in Ukraine Anna Shakarishvili told reporters.

Ukraine is one of Europe’s worst affected countries. Some 340,000 people aged over 15 years are considered HIV-positive, which amounts to 0.86 percent of the adult population, government statistics showed.

Godfrey Marawanyika/AFP/Expatica