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Officials fear Aids on the rise

Officials fear Aids on the rise

Anti-trafficking law could reverse drop in infection rates

THREATS to a successful Cambodian condom campaign have raised fears the country could experience a second HIV/Aids epidemic, health officials said Wednesday at the start of a three-day national Aids conference in Phnom Penh.

Tia Phalla, of Cambodia's National Aids Authority, said the country's so-called 100 percent condom use program, which provides sex education and distributes condoms to sex workers, "is facing difficulties" because of a new anti-trafficking law and lack of financial support.

Police launched a crackdown on brothels after the new law was passed in February, which has reportedly pushed sex workers to abandon safe sex practices or risk arrest and imprisonment.

"Enforcement of the [new] anti-trafficking law harms the 100 percent condom use in brothels," Tia Phalla told the conference.

Before the condom program began, Cambodia's overall HIV rate was the worst in the region, peaking at 3.7 percent of the population in 1997. Rates among sex workers were estimated at 40 percent.

The percentage of sex workers who consistently used condoms with clients had already begun to drop to 94 percent in 2007 from 96 percent in 2003, according to National Aids Authority data.

Progress has been made in the treatment of the disease, according to Erin Soto, mission director for USAID Cambodia, who said more than 29,000 Cambodians are now taking antiretroviral medication compared with only a handful that had access to the life-saving drugs a few years ago.

"These gains are significant, but they are fragile," she told the conference. "Our challenge is to continue to achieve success without becoming a victim of it."

The aggressive condom and sex-education campaign is believed to have helped reduce Cambodia's overall HIV prevalence to 0.9 percent.

But lack of funding and the enforcement of the anti-sex-trafficking law has threatened to reverse those gains.

Only six of Cambodia's 24 provinces and cities currently have funds to carry out the condom program, Tia Phalla said.

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY AFP

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