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After years of believing AIDS hits only foreigners and fringe groups such as drug users, China's government is starting an educational campaign to stop the spread of the disease among its 1.2 billion people.

Television, newspapers, magazines and exhibitions will spread information about AIDS, the magazine Outlook Weekly said in its latest issue.The report, based on information provided by the research department of the State Council, or China's Cabinet, noted what it said was an alarming lack of public knowledge about AIDS.

It cited public health workers in several cities who said that while most people had heard about AIDS, few knew how to avoid becoming infected with the virus that causes it.

"Many people think that if you don't visit prostitutes, you can't get the disease," the report said. "And some prostitutes believe that if you don't have contact with foreigners, you can't get AIDS."

The plan represents an abrupt change from current policies, which have avoided widespread testing and educational programs because officials didn't believe the disease would strike the general Chinese population.

Outlook Weekly strenuously criticized that viewpoint, saying that it handicapped efforts to prevent the spread of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.

AIDS is spread most often through sexual contact, contaminated needles shared by drug users, infected blood or blood products, and from pregnant women to their offspring.

The number of people testing positive for the AIDS virus in China rose to 1,435 by the end of July, including 1,174 mainland Chinese, according to official figures. The others, foreigners or Chinese from overseas, are generally expelled from the country after testing positive.