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TEHRAN (Reuters) - Sexually transmitted HIV infections are on the rise in Iran and the Islamic Republic is setting up telephone hotlines to help fight the problem, a senior official said in comments published on Tuesday.
Injecting drug users are the main risk group in Iran, which is on a heroin smuggling route to the West from Afghanistan, but officials are also concerned about the number of people who are infected with the AIDS virus through sexual contacts.
It is a sensitive issue in the conservative Islamic state, which bans sex outside marriage, but U.N. officials have praised the authorities for the way they are tackling the virus, for example by urging drug addicts to seek treatment.
"In recent years the incidence of AIDS virus contraction through sexual contact has increased," said Abbas Sedaghat, who heads the Health Ministry AIDS office.
"There are indications that the AIDS contraction model in Iran is changing from shared syringes toward sexual contacts," he was quoted as saying by the Etemad newspaper.
Iran has a low prevalence of HIV infections with a rate of about 0.16 percent of the adult population compared with 0.8 percent in North America, a senior U.N. official in the country told Reuters last year.
But the official warned that infection rates in Iran were increasing because of both a growing inflow of cheap heroin from Afghanistan, the world's number one opium poppy producer, and a rise in the number of sexually transmitted cases.
Sedaghat voiced similar concern.
"Unfortunately, the two main target groups, addicts using syringes and those with irresponsible sexual behavior, may together exacerbate the spread of this disease," he said.
Free distribution of syringes and education were helping to control infections among drug addicts, he said.
Another daily, Etemad-e Melli, quoted Sedaghat as saying the ministry had launched hotlines across Iran. "In this way individuals with high-risk behavior can receive free-of-charge consultation services," he said. "The information obtained in this way will be treated as highly confidential."
Sedaghat warned that Iran's young population, engagement in high-risk sexual activities and the availability of narcotics had created the conditions for a new wave of the disease, Etemad-e Melli reported.
Reporting by Hashem Kalantari; writing by Fredrik Dahl; editing by Tim Pearce