SA hits back at Aids epidemic with sex worker programme

2015-01-13 12:41

An initiative aimed at reducing HIV infections among sex workers, their clients and partners has been officially launched by the South African National Aids Council in Johannesburg.

The National Sex Worker HIV Prevention and Treatment Programme aims to reduce transmission of HIV to sex workers and their clients, ensure good access to social services and healthcare for sex workers, and tackle human rights abuses that make sex workers exceptionally vulnerable to HIV infection.

About 153 000 sex workers working across South Africa, of whom 60% are estimated to be living with HIV, will benefit from this programme.

Local and international research has shown that sex workers are more vulnerable to HIV infection than the general population and therefore require special prevention and treatment intervention suited to their particular needs and circumstances.

Until 2013, when the National Sex Worker HIV Prevention and Treatment Programme was introduced by the Aids council, these needs were largely neglected.

Launching the programme yesterday, the council’s chief executive, Dr Fareed Abdullah, said: “The introduction of a national HIV programme for sex workers finally plugs a gaping hole in our country’s response to the epidemic.”

“General HIV services simply do not meet the special needs of sex workers. Their work exposes [them] to a hugely increased risk of infection. It is not only a question of having a large number of sex partners, many of whom demand unprotected sex,” he said.

“Sex work is often dangerous and lonely. It is illegal in this country and carries a heavy social stigma. An exceptional programme is needed to provide effective HIV services to sex workers and fulfil their right to receive healthcare,” Abdullah added.

The sex worker programme was informed by a survey, commissioned jointly by the Aids council and the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce about two years ago, which revealed that there were at least 153 000 sex workers in South Africa.

A recent modelling study published by Leigh Johnson and colleagues in the prestige medical journal The Lancet showed that sex workers, their non-commercial sex partners and their clients accounted for between 6% and 11% of all new infections in South Africa.

The Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria, which is funding the programme, endorsed the initiative yesterday.

Dr Mark Dybul, executive director at Global Fund said: “Experience has shown us that partnerships are critical to success in the field of public health, including partnerships that enable us to take a community-centred approach to prevention and treatment of disease.

“Equally, we have learnt that we need the courage to embrace and champion human rights in order to reach and support those most vulnerable to HIV,” he added.

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