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Sexual HIV risk among substance-using female commercial sex workers in Durban, South Africa

Tara Carney
Petal M Petersen Williams
Andreas Plüddemann
Charles DH Parry


This study examined data collected from a sample of female sex workers (FSWs) during the first two years of a brief risk-reduction intervention for vulnerable  populations that focused on substance use and HIV risk-related behaviours (2007–2009) as part of a rapid assessment and response evaluation study. In 2007, in collaboration with a local non-governmental organisation (NGO), an initiative was begun to roll out targeted harm reduction strategies for drug-using street based FSWs in Durban, South Africa. Data were collected on demographic characteristics, substance use and HIV risk behaviours to tailor these harm reduction strategies with participants. Over the first two years of the intervention, data were collected from 646 FSWs: 428 who reported being at low risk for HIV and 218 who reported being at high risk for HIV (defined as engaging in unprotected sex with sexual partners in the past 90 days). FSWs who had previously been diagnosed with HIV or a sexually transmitted disease (STD) were significantly less likely to report engaging in unprotected sex. Those who used over-the-counter or prescription (OTC/PRE) drugs reported engaging in unprotected sex significantly more often than FSWs who did not use these substances, while those who used heroin were less likely to report unprotected sex. The findings are encouraging in that those who are aware of their HIV status are less likely to engage in risky sexual behaviour, and therefore HIV testing and counselling is recommended. It indicates the need to identify strategies to encourage the likelihood of all FSWs, particularly those who are HIV-positive, to use condoms. It also encourages further research to investigate specific substances as possible predictors of high risk behaviours in high-risk populations of sex workers.

Keywords: drug use, HIV sexual risk behaviours, sex work

Journal Identifiers

eISSN: 1608-5906
print ISSN: 1727-9445