HCM CITY — After five years, a nationwide campaign of harm reduction and HIV prevention among sex workers has not proven effective, a review conference heard yesterday.
Health officials said several programmes have been carried out to protect sex workers from HIV and other STDs (sexually transmitted diseases), but these have suffered from many problems including a lack of co-ordination between agencies fighting HIV/AIDS.
Nguyen Trong Dam, deputy Minister of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs, said prostitutes were among the population groups most vulnerable to HIV infections in Viet Nam, besides intravenous drug users.
The situation has become more and more serious, Dam said. He said despite the implementation of several awareness programmes, condom use among sex workers, including males, was very low.
He said stronger co-ordination was needed between public security forces, health agencies and the labour sector to help sex workers remain safe from diseases like HIV/AIDS and also facilitate their reintegration into the community after rehabilitation.
"A few years ago, it was easy to see female sex workers in public places like bus stations and pavements, but most of the now go online or adopt more sophisticated forms of services," Dam said.
Prostitution has become one of the main causes of HIV transmission, health workers said. According to recent statistics, the rate of HIV infections among sex workers was pretty high in major cities, 20 per cent in Ha Noi, 23 per cent in Hai Phong and 16 per cent in HCM City.
HIV infection among sex workers was as high as 30 per cent, the conference heard.
Duong Van Dat, an officer with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA, said very few sex workers were able to access HIV prevention services like free condoms and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases.
This situation had to change drastically, he added.
Dat noted that the Minister of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs, Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan, had recently said that it was not possible to get rid of prostitution totally and that intensified focus was necessary on harm reduction among sex workers.
He said that in Cambodia, up to 80 per cent of the sex workers were using condoms and the incidence of HIV and other STDs had fallen sharply.
In Viet Nam, there was a large number of sex workers who don’t use condoms because they cannot access it, he added.
Condoms were not easily available in public places in Viet Nam like hotels, and there were cultural barriers that prevented both the sex workers as well as their clients from purchasing them, he said.
According to the HIV/AIDS Prevention Department under the Health Ministry, as of September 30, 2010, the country had 180,312 HIV positive people, 42,339 AIDS patients and 48,368 people had died of AIDS.
The epidemic has spread widely with HIV populations in all provinces, 97 per cent of the districts and 70 per cent of communes nation-wide, department officials said.
Eighty per cent of the HIV positive population in Viet Nam were males, they added.
Dr Nguyen Minh Tam of the department said the rate of HIV transmission was particularly high among males who had sex with males (MSM).
She cited a survey in 2009 that found just 47.4 per cent of the MSM population in HCM City used condoms regularly with their partners. The rate was higher in Ha Noi and Hai Phong.
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