Reaching out to sex workers as a population vulnerable to HIV is part of the country's strategic health plan, SA National Aids Council CEO Fareed Abdullah said.
He said part of the plan was to prevent new HIV infections and this meant helping the "key populations", which represented most of the new infections.
These efforts would have a "profound effect". Abdullah said the plan recognised sex workers as a key population.
HIV prevalence among sex workers was estimated at between 44 and 69% in South Africa.
"If there is nothing else we do at Sanac in the next two years, we should be supporting, not driving, a national sex workers' programme," Abdullah said.
Sex workers vulnerable to abuse
The plan, called the National Strategic Plan 2012-2016, is the country's strategy for combating HIV and tuberculosis. Abdullah said that despite the title, it was a 20-year plan to reduce infections, death and discrimination against people with HIV to zero.
However, the goal was "more an aspiration rather than a technical timetable", Abdullah said.
While the National Strategic Plan to combat HIV recognised sex workers, it came under criticism at a two-day sex workers' symposium in Boksburg, where Abdullah was speaking.
Sex worker activist Shane Tetzer criticised it for not proposing the decriminalisation of sex work.
"As a sex worker, I don't find anything in this plan for decriminalisation," said Tetzer. "How can you talk about outreach and an enabling environment without decriminalisation?"
Tetzer said without this, they were vulnerable to exploitation and abuse from authorities, including the police. "Decriminalisation, that is what you should be totally about, finish and klaar."
Abdullah acknowledged it was an important issue that had been raised in previous National Strategic Plans, but had not been taken forward. He said proponents of decriminalisation had to push it through a legislative process to Parliament. "Let's not shout from the balcony and let's do things properly," Abdullah said. He said if the matter could be brought to Parliament, it would force political foes of the decriminalisation of sex work to explain their positions.
Almost 20% of new infections from sex workers
Health department HIV prevention director Thato Chidarikire said about 19.8% of new HIV infections in South Africa were from sex workers.
Men who had sex with men, another key population, represented 9.2% of all new infections.
African Centre for Migration and Society visiting researcher Marlise Richter provided data at the symposium, including the estimate on HIV prevalence among South African sex workers.
She said the average female sex worker had four adult or child dependants. Male sex workers averaged two dependants.
Richter said female sex workers averaged about 12 clients a week, while male sex workers had about 10. Transgender sex workers saw about eight clients a week.
The various genders of sex workers also reflected in different condom use. Only about 5.55 of female sex workers reported not using a condom during their last encounter. In contrast, 27.5% of male sex workers and 20% of transgender sex workers used condoms.
(Sapa, August 2012)
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