A IDS and health workers expressed alarm at the prospect of prostitution going underground just as health education services and medical facilities were beginning to reach reluctant prostitutes.
A survey conducted by the health workers at Tuol Kork's Dike Community Clinic over the first year of their functioning - between June 1993 and June 1994 - confirms some of those fears. Preliminary results show that though awareness about Aids among prostitutes increased from about 21 per cent to 61 per cent during the year, about 60 per cent said that while they had heard of Aids, they did not know what to do to prevent it.
"They were very reluctant to come to us in the beginning, they were too ashamed. When we started the clinic last year, we got just three or four patients every day but before the ban it had gone up to 20-25," says Dr Ouk Vong Vathiny, a doctor at the clinic. "But after the ban, the number had gone down to two [per day] in early September."
The survey's preliminary results show that prostitutes had an average of five clients each every day, with differences ranging from one to 18 daily. Only about 20 per cent claimed that they use condoms all the time.
"The prostitutes will now probably go to nightclubs, restaurants or bars and the owners will refuse to accept they are prostitutes, they will pretend they are daughters and nieces," says Dr Tea Phalla, manager of the National Aids Program at the Ministry of Health. "We will not be able to access them for health education or condom distribution.
"We would also like to see prostitution go away, but that is too ambitious. I think it is more realistic to register prostitutes and aim for 100 per cent condom use," he adds.
While there is no comprehensive recent survey on the percentage of prostitutes with Aids in the capital, Dr. Vathiny says health workers estimate it could be as high as 50 per cent. She says most of those coming to her clinic have two or more STDs, often including Aids.
A recent survey by WHO and the Ministry of Health in one province (officials would not reveal its name) revealed that as many as 38 per cent of the prostitutes are HIV positive.
"This is much worse than we ever expected, I thought it would not exceed 20 per cent," Dr Phalla says.
He fears the situation could be as bad or even worse in Banteay Meanchey and Koh Kong.
"Koh Kong, especially, is easily accessible from Thailand and to fishermen and sailors and is cut off from the rest of the country because there is no road," he points out. Similar surveys are expected soon in other provinces.
In an indication of the importance of the issue, Prince Ranariddh himself will represent Cambodia at an International conference on AIDS organized by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the French government in Paris in early December, Phalla said.