Key Points:

It's World Aids Day today, and new research indicates the number of infections in New Zealand is still rising in both men and women.

The Aids Epidemiology Group looked at the prevalence of HIV using sexual health clinics throughout the country, and in the first half of this year 87 people, 69 men and 18 women, were newly diagnosed with HIV, bringing the total number of people infected to 2978.

HIV infection rates remain highest among gay men, but there is a concern that foreign prostitutes - hit by the economic downturn - could contribute to the spread of HIV as some start to offer unprotected sex to make up for the lower takings.

Sex-without-condom is commonly practised by sex workers in countries such as China, and the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective, a taxpayer-funded organisation providing education, says it will be stepping up efforts to inform foreign prostitutes that such acts are illegal in New Zealand.

A Chinese Government study released last week found that more than half of Beijing's 90,000 sex workers do not use condoms, despite sexual transmission having replaced drug use as the most common infection route for HIV there.

However, under the Prostitution Reform Act 2003, prostitutes in New Zealand and their clients who do not adopt safe sex practices, including not wearing condoms, can be fined up to $2000.

Asian prostitutes, who are mainly Chinese, make up a third of the 1700 sex workers in Auckland, according to the collective Many are sole operators working from suburban homes or apartments.

"I guess the problem is those who just come in the country for a short time, and then go off," said Annah Pickering, the collective's Auckland region manager.

Two clients of Chinese sex workers on the North Shore told the Herald that they had been offered unprotected sex for an extra $50 to $100 by the prostitutes.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, one said: "She told me there are fewer customers now because of the hard economic times, and asked if I was keen to pay more for unprotected sex because she wanted to earn extra money to send back to China."

Ms Pickering said she knew a small number - about one in 12 prostitutes - practised unsafe sex, but she found it "hard to believe" that it was the sex workers who offered unprotected sex.

"It's always the men who make those sort of proposition, and they need to take the responsibility to stop," she said.

Ms Pickering said Chinese sex workers were in a vulnerable position because they came from a culture "where men are more dominant ", and do not feel empowered in dealing with their male clients' demands.

She said the collective would be stepping up its "peer education programme" and engaging Mandarin-speaking-volunteers to help "empower" these Chinese sex workers, including educating them on their rights and teaching them how to put on a condom using their mouths "without the client knowing".