China has long been criticised by international health groups for what they say is an underreporting of the scale of the HIV/Aids crisis facing the country.

Rural epidemic

While health education campaigns in big cities such as Beijing and Shanghai have had some success, the explosion of the disease in rural China has received little official attention or financial assistance.

But an explosion of drug abuse, especially
in rural areas, is helping to fuel infections
In the 1980s and 1990s hundreds of thousands of impoverished farmers became infected through botched blood-selling schemes.

Commenting on the latest figures, state media quoted experts from the United Nations and the health ministry in Beijing as estimating the number of HIV carriers in China at about 650,000.

That suggested many people were unaware they were infected, the reports said.

Hao Yang, deputy director of the government’s Disease Control Bureau, was quoted as saying drug abuse accounted for 37 per cent of the cases reported in the first 10 months of the year, while unsafe sexual contact had caused 28 per cent.

"Before 2002, only 10 per cent of all infections were caused by sexual contact," he was quoted as saying.

A recent survey by Chinese health workers found that only 38 per cent of prostitutes insisted on using condoms, while 50 per cent of drug users still shared needles.

On Tuesday a UN report said that China’s HIV/Aids epidemic had reached "alarming proportions", fuelled by an explosion in drug abuse.

"With HIV spreading gradually from most-at-risk populations to the general population, the number of HIV infections in women is growing too."