A new study on the prevalence of HIV in India has found that almost 40 percent of Nepalese women and girls who were rescued after being forced into prostitution in India are HIV positive.
The study led by Jay Silverman, an associate professor at the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) found that India's HIV/AIDS problem appears to be spreading into neighbouring countries.
The researchers found that one in seven Nepalese are trafficked into sexual slavery before the age of 15 and the HIV infection rate exceeded 60 percent.
They say the high rates of HIV documented, support concerns that sex trafficking may be a significant factor in both maintaining the HIV epidemic in India and in the spread of the epidemic to its neighbours.
Experts say India has around 2.5 million people living with HIV/AIDS, the world's third highest caseload after South Africa and Nigeria, and about 40 percent of those are women.
Although Nepal has a far lower number of cases that is changing and the trafficking of Nepalese women and girls to India is suspected to be a risk factor for HIV transmission in the region.
As many as 800,000 people are trafficked across the world each year and 80 percent of them women and girls.
According to the U.S. State Department, 150,000 of these are trafficked annually within and across South Asia with the majority of them destined for major Indian cities.
For the study Silverman and his team examined the medical records of 287 girls and women who were rescued and repatriated after being sex-trafficked from Nepal to India between 1997 and 2005, and 38 percent of them tested positive for HIV.
Of the 287, 225 had full documentation of their trafficking experiences and their median age at the time of trafficking was 17 while the youngest was 7.
On average they spent over two years in the brothels and some were forced to work in numerous brothels.
The majority were deceived into leaving Nepal with promises of domestic or restaurant jobs, and offers of marriage, but others were drugged and kidnapped quite often by people known to them, such as friends, sex partners and family.
Thirty-three girls were trafficked before they were 15 and they were found to have an increased risk for HIV, with 60.6 percent infected among this youngest age group.
Those trafficked specifically to Mumbai were also particularly at risk.
The researchers suggest that the widespread myth that sex with virgins could cure HIV/AIDS could account for the higher incidence of HIV among the younger girls.
The researchers say that sex trafficking of girls and women is widespread across South Asia and is recognized as both a violent gender-based crime and major human rights violation.
They say their findings demonstrate the need for greater attention to reducing and intervening in sex trafficking in South Asia, particularly among the very young.
The study is published in the current issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.