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Thursday, 30 November, 2000, 23:58 GMT
Cambodia's Aids struggle
Aids orphan in Phnom Penh
Cambodia's aids victims leave many orphans
By Helen Vesperini in Phnom Penh

An Aids awareness campaign in the brothels of Cambodia came too late for Lim, a mother-of-two in her early thirties.

She used to work as a cleaner in a private house, but her body is too wasted to work now and she lies inert on a mat.

Her husband, who, like many Cambodian men, had a taste for massage parlours, developed HIV in the mid-1990s, when the disease was still low-profile in Cambodia.

Now it is one of the world's hardest-hit countries, with more than 100 new HIV infections estimated to take place every day.

Already 3.7% of adults aged 15 to 49 years are infected, according to UNAIDS.

Brothel infections

Lim's husband is dead - and she will be next.

Khmer women generally keep their savings in the form of gold jewellery, but Lim sold all of hers trying to find a cure for her husband. She is destitute.

"The tragedy of it is that she spent everything she had trying to cure him, when he was the one who gave her HIV," said a friend.

HIV in Cambodia
100 infections a day
3.7% of adults infected
Half of prostitutes do not use condoms
Lim's case is typical of that of many Cambodian women. With the highest HIV infection rate in Asia, Cambodia's booming commercial sex industry is largely to blame.

Studies in 1998 showed more 42% of sex workers were infected with HIV. Only about half prostitutes are estimated to regularly use condoms.

The media sometimes suggests that the Asian sex trade exists for Western clients. Nothing could be further from the truth. In Cambodia, as in neighbouring Thailand and elsewhere, the bulk of the clients of any brothel, massage parlour or karaoke bar are Asian men.

Health authorities estimate that between 20,000 and 30,000 men seek commercial sex in Cambodia every day. They range from politicians to cyclo drivers, for sex here is cheap.

'Handing out condoms'

Prime Minister Hun Sen has said that Aids has done more damage to the country than decades of war.

But worse is surely to come. A report released earlier this week suggested the projections made 10 years ago for the spread of HIV were far too low.

For if the government authorities, UN agencies and non-governmental organisations fighting the spread of Aids in Cambodia are numerous, the problems facing them are legion.

There is resistance from some Buddhist monks, corruption at government level, and a tendency on the part of some religious groups to use medicine as a way of promoting religion - not to mention a widespread belief that simply handing out condoms will solve the whole Aids problem.

No one is quite so keen on caring for Aids patients.

"We have no nursing back-up in this country," said Vira Avakolita, a monk who is trying to provide just that.

Cambodia's more prosperous neighbour Thailand has reportedly managed to reduce its HIV-infection rate, but it started taking anti-Aids measures back in the mid-1980s. Meanwhile, the prospects look bleak for Cambodia.

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See also:

30 Nov 00 | Africa
Fiennes on Aids mission
28 Nov 00 | Health
Russia's Aids catastrophe growing
28 Nov 00 | Africa
Africa's Aids burden
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