Health authorities are calling for a repeal of a 145-year-old law that makes gay sex a crime, fearing it is causing HIV and AIDS to spread quickly in India's homosexual community, officials said Wednesday.

The government's main AIDS prevention agency has filed an affidavit in the Delhi High Court, supporting a request by an AIDS activist group to scrap the law.

The National AIDS Control Organization, part of India's Health Ministry, argued in the affidavit filed last week that the 1861 law creates a public health risk.

"So long as the gay community is forced to go underground, it limits the access to them and makes it difficult for the AIDS prevention campaign to reach them," Sujatha Rao, who heads the AIDS Control Organization, also known as NACO, told The Associated Press.

An Indian law enacted under British colonial rule in 1861 makes consensual sex between same-sex adults a crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison. While prosecutions are rare under the law, gay activists say police use it to harass them.

But with recent studies showing a sharp increase in HIV infections among India's gay community, the government has taken a first step to change the law.

In the affidavit filed in the Delhi High Court, NACO said its surveys showed that 8 percent of India's homosexual population was infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

"Eight percent was too large a figure for us not to have responded, especially when the national prevalence rate for AIDS remains less than 1 percent," Rao said.

Activists, who have long fought for the law to be changed, said the government's response was a step in the right direction.

"We're glad the government has taken a stand. NACO's response is very critical to the whole case," said Anjali Gopalan, who heads the NAZ Foundation.

NAZ filed the original petition in 2001, seeking a repeal of the law.

"However, the court in 2005 rejected the application saying Indian society was not ready to accept legalized homosexual behavior," said Rahul Singh, a NAZ official. The organization appealed to the Supreme Court, which earlier this year ordered the Delhi High Court to re-examine its decision.

The High Court is to take up the issue again on Oct. 4.

In May, UNAIDS issued a report saying India has the world's largest number of people living with HIV. With an estimated 5.7 million infections, the country has surpassed South Africa's 5.5 million.