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July 26, 2012

AIDS Conference Turns Attention to Sex Industry

by Jeff Seldin

WASHINGTON, D.C. — One key to stopping the spread of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, is making sure workers in the global sex industry take appropriate precautions.  But there are growing concerns medical breakthroughs in the fight against AIDS will soon make that more difficult. 

Excitement about turning the tide in the fight against HIV is being tempered by researchers who worry some of the most vulnerable populations will miss out on medical advances.

"The risk to sex workers of all genders will be enormous if condoms are replaced by partially effective HIV methods that do not protect against STIs [sexually transmitted infections] or unwanted pregnancies," said Cheryl Overs, senior researcher of Australia's Monash University.

Overs says perhaps no segment of the population faces a greater danger than workers in the world's sex industries.

Overs, who has long studied AIDS and the sex industry, told the 2012 International AIDS Conference in Washington the problem is not that sex workers do not want to be safe. But she says they are under tremendous pressure.

"Sex workers know their clients and they know there will be increased demand for condomless sex,"  Overs said. "And clients are already talking on the Internet about how the new HIV pill is going to liberate them from rubber [condoms]."

Overs warns many governments are finding ways to make the problem worse, calling efforts to encourage HIV prevention by posting pictures of HIV positive sex workers on the Internet "misguided."

There are also concerns about homosexuals, bi-sexuals and transgender people, especially in Africa. Doctor Paul Semugoma says too many physicians fail to ask their patients about their sexual histories in a misguided effort not to discriminate.

"Many stories are untold and unreported," said Semugoma. "It is tough to achieve comprehensive HIV treatment and prevention is this context."

But Semugoma says he is hopeful that despite obstacles, efforts to fight AIDS are "turning the tide."