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Asian Tsunami Blamed for Increasing AIDS Risk

Several nations threatened by the AIDS crisis in Asia are finding themselves even more vulnerable in the wake of last December's devastating Indian Ocean tsunami. That is the assessment from officials at a regional conference on HIV and AIDS underway in Kobe, Japan.

Some communities hardest hit by last year's tsunami had high rates of HIV and AIDS infections before the disaster killed more than 230,000 people. In the wake of the December 26 earthquake and killer waves, some funds intended to fight the disease were diverted to relief and recovery projects.

Officials, speaking Monday in Kobe at the International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific, warned disruption in basic health services in tsunami-hit areas will mean more HIV infections.

Among the issues is access to condoms, where the sex trade may be on the rise. An influx of military personnel and relief workers may mean more men are seeking out prostitutes and others for sex.

J.V.R. Prasada Rao, the director of the UNAIDS Regional Support Team in Bangkok, says women on their own are particularly vulnerable.

"These women and unattached girls, they are being subject to sexual exploitation," he said. "In countries like Thailand and India, and even partly Sri Lanka, I think the governments are aware of this problem and taking good care of it. The problem, probably, is in Indonesia where, maybe, there is still some sort of a gap in what the government is doing there."

One in four of the world's new HIV infections now occur in Asia. The United Nations estimates more than eight million people are infected with HIV in the region, with about five-million of those cases in India.

Experts at the AIDS conference, which ends Tuesday, warn that another 12 million Asians could be infected during the next five years if there is not a strong commitment by governments in the region to preventing the spread of the disease.

The conference has also highlighted the increasing number of women infected with HIV.

A new report unveiled at the Kobe conference reveals female HIV cases in the Asia-Pacific region have increased 20 percent during the past three years. In Cambodia, for example, the number of women infected with the virus now exceeds men.