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UN Recruits Sex Workers in Anti-AIDS Campaign - 2003-01-22

The United Nations has started work on new programs to fight the spread of HIV/AIDS. U.N. officials met Tuesday and Wednesday with representatives of sex worker organizations to map out a strategy to fight AIDS.

UNAIDS calls this a pioneering effort. Never before have officials from a U.N. organization formally discussed AIDS prevention with representatives of sex worker organizations.

Aurorita Mendoza, an adviser to UNAIDS, says there is no U.N. agency that deals with issues affecting sex workers. Yet, she says sex workers are one of the groups most affected by HIV/AIDS.

"Not only have they had some of the highest rates of HIV prevalence in a given population," she said. "but they also suffer a high degree of stigma and discrimination. In many countries, sex work is illegal, which makes it difficult for people involved in HIV prevention and care focusing on sex work to reach them with messages and services on prevention and care."

U.N. officials say sex workers are among those most likely to respond positively to HIV prevention programs. They note some countries have succeeded in reducing HIV prevalence among sex workers, including Bangladesh, Benin, Cambodia, Dominican Republic and Thailand. The officials say these programs have succeeded primarily because they have encouraged sex workers to use condoms.

A Brazilian group called the Network on Sex Work Projects is among those teaching sex workers how they can avoid contracting HIV.

Paulo Longo, a former sex worker who is now coordinator of the group, says although sex workers usually are blamed for transmitting HIV/AIDS, they are experts in sex education and can be very effective in promoting HIV prevention.

"People tend to protect themselves," he said, "when they have the recognition of their activity as a legitimate source of income, when they have access to treatments or when they have any basic access to ... the general materials necessary for preventing HIV, like access to condoms, access to information - all this."

UNAIDS officials say they plan to hold other meetings to devise HIV prevention programs that are specifically designed for sex workers in different parts of the world.