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In Festivities Lurk Worries of HIV's Spread

With millions of spectators and hundreds of boat racers in the capital for this year’s Water Festival, health officials say they are worried about the spread of HIV and other diseases, as well as drug abuse.

A coalition of more than 100 health organizations, in collaboration with the national AIDS authority, has undertaken a three-day awareness campaign, distributing 250,000 free condoms to revelers and racers.

Authorities expect up to 5 million visitors to Phnom Penh for the three-day festival, which got underway Tuesday.

Health workers worry that festival-goers will use this opportunity to have unprotected sex with thousands of brothel workers, hostesses, beer girls and other prostitutes, or with “sweethearts” leading to the further spread of HIV.

“The people at risk for HIV are the youth, who like having sex outside [their homes],” said Choub Sok Chamreun, director of technical support and best practices department for the Khmer HIV/AIDS NGO Alliance. “If no measures are taken to educate them and promote HIV awareness, we think that more than 10,000 people would face HIV during these three days.”

Ly Po, vice president of the National Anti-AIDS Authority, echoed those concerns.

“During the festival, my authority provided about 2 million T-shirts throughout the country, so that people understand HIV education. The T-shirt says, ‘We must prevent ourselves from being infected with HIV/AIDS’ and ‘Don’t take HIV/AIDS home.’”

Meanwhile, authorities have hung a banner over Mao Tze Tung boulevard reading, “Condoms are a weapon to prevent HIV/AIDS infection.”

Sex workers at a brothel in Tuol Kork district who asked not to be named said they expect more clients during the festival, including boat racers.

“Whoever doesn’t use a condom, I don’t have sex with him,” said a 23-year-old woman, who said that during the 2007 Water Festival, she turned away several clients who didn’t want to use a condom.

Boat racers said Tuesday they had been educated about the spread of sexually transmitted diseases and how to protect themselves from falling into the water and drowning.

“I must take caution, even though I come from a far-away area,” said Kem Sophath, a racer from Kratie province. “If I feel sexual, I must use a condom properly.”