Fears That World Cup Could Increase Spread of HIV

Mark Tutton, CNN, January 7, 2010

Advocates for sex workers in South Africa have warned that this summer’s World Cup could be a public health disaster.

With up to half a million football fans expected to visit South Africa for the World Cup, and up to half of South Africa’s prostitutes carrying the HIV virus, there have been calls for the country to decriminalize prostitution to help tackle the spread of HIV.

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The UN estimates that in South Africa 5.7 million people are HIV positive, more than in any other country. A 2005 University of Michigan study found that 46 percent of female sex workers in Johannesburg had HIV.

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Harper [Eric Harper, director of the Cape Town-based Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT),] said HIV is just one of the dangers faced by South Africa’s sex workers. As well as the risk of contracting other STIs, there is the chance of unwanted pregnancies and the ever-present threat of violence and rape.

Prostitution is illegal in South Africa, but the law is currently being reviewed as part of a larger assessment of all sexual offenses. Harper believes decriminalizing prostitution can help control the spread of HIV.

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Harper argued that criminalization drives prostitution underground. He said that removing the threat of prosecution would make it easier to provide sex workers with condoms and make it easier for sex workers to turn down clients who refuse to use condoms.

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Julian Seedat of the South African National AIDS Council, which advises the government on HIV and AIDS, is also expecting an increase in prostitution during the World Cup, but he is more optimistic about the health implications.

“I don’t think the World Cup will necessarily bring an increased risk of the spread of HIV,” he told CNN.

“Over the years there has been an incredible amount of education and awareness work done among sex workers. Years ago the high-risk groups were thought to be homosexuals and sex workers, but there has been such a focus on education for these groups that their behavior has really changed. It’s quite the norm for a commercial sex worker to have a bag full of condoms.”

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Harper said most sex workers do practice safe sex, but many clients don’t want to use a condom. He added that as long as prostitution remains illegal, protecting sex workers and their clients during the World Cup would be problematic.

He told CNN, “We have to make condoms freely available and we have to make it possible for sex workers to report human rights violations like child prostitution and people trafficking.”

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