March 22, 2006

China AIDS chief knows nothing of missing activist

BEIJING (Reuters) - China's top AIDS official said on Wednesday that he had no idea where a missing Chinese activist was, but said the government had a very good relationship with private groups involved in fighting the disease.

Hu Jia, 32, went missing after going on a hunger strike with several others to protest what they said was the government's hiring of thugs to beat up a civil rights campaigner in the southern province of Guangdong in February.

Hu has also been critical of the government's AIDS policy and its efforts to help AIDS victims and their families.

His wife and friends have been trying to locate him since he vanished over a month ago, but police and state security have refused to confirm of deny if they are holding him. "There are 1.3 billion people in China, and you ask me where one person is? How am I supposed to know?" Vice Health Minister Wang Longde, who is also China's top AIDS official, told reporters on the sidelines of a World Health Organization meeting.

"We have very good cooperation with private groups in the fight against AIDS. We believe that in this fight you cannot just rely on the government," the vice minister said, before outlining a series of official measures taken to battle the disease.

He declined to answer any more questions on Hu.

Hu's case has attracted the attention of the lead U.N. agency against AIDS, UNAIDS, and rights group Amnesty International.

"We are very much aware of this person," Henk Bekedam, the WHO's chief representative in China, told reporters. "We have spoken to the government and are following it up. We have not received any specific details about his whereabouts."

China recorded its first outbreak of AIDS in 1989. During the 1990s, many people -- notably in the central province of Henan -- contracted the virus through contaminated blood transfusions.

Last year, there were about 25,000 deaths from AIDS across China. In January, Beijing lowered by about 30 percent its estimate of the number of people living with HIV/AIDS, yet warned against complacency, saying that the figure was still rising with people unaware of the danger.