This August, as more than 20,000 people gather in Mexico City for the International AIDS Conference, you can bet that some delegates will be attending meetings of a much more intimate nature than the conference programme offers.

Conference sex is a rarely discussed, but very real phenomenon. A convention in a far off, exotic place with no familiar eyes watching or judging is the perfect setting for a secret tryst with that cute programme coordinator or that handsome monitoring and evaluation officer whose eye you caught during the morning's round table discussion.

Thousands of HIV-positive people will be among the conference attendees, and for many of them, this sort of gathering is the perfect place to meet potential lovers or spouses who are also HIV-positive.

"When we have conferences for people living with HIV, we see very high levels of sexual activity among the participants," commented Lyne Mutheu (not her real name), who works with one of Nairobi's largest networks for people living with HIV. "It seems like they are trying to expend the sexual energy they have been building up because they feel they cannot date freely in their normal lives."

It's just as well the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) will be supplying Mexico City's hotels with condoms, as part of an initiative by UNAIDS and the Mexican hotel industry.

"The Life Initiative – Hotels addressing AIDS" is aimed at raising awareness about HIV prevention and non-discrimination of people living with HIV among hotel guests and staff. It will also promote sustainable HIV workplace policies and programmes in the hotels.

Joining the fight against HIV seems like a sensible step for hotels that are host to countless numbers of lonely travellers, many of whom will wind up having sex during their stay.

Throughout history, travel has been associated with the spread of disease. Trade and migration are thought to have helped the bubonic plague wreak devastation in the Middle Ages, while the movement of armies in the early 16th century may explain how syphilis spread so rapidly across Europe.

According to a 2004 study on mobility and HIV risk among Cameroonian men, those men who were away from home even for short periods had a higher HIV risk than those who stayed at home.

No doubt there will be some advocates of abstinence and faithfulness attending the conference who will see UNFPA's decision to leave condoms in hotel rooms as a license for delegates to have sex with virtual strangers.

But perhaps it's better to put the moralising aside and deal with the reality of conference sex.

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