Prevention services need to focus on newly-started sex workers in South India

Changes in HIV and syphilis prevalence among female sex workers from three serial crosssectional surveys in Karnataka state, South India. 

Isac S, Ramesh BM, Rajaram S, Washington R, Bradley JE, Reza-Paul S, Beattie TS, Alary M. BMJ Open. 2015 Mar 27;5(3):e007106. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2014-007106.

Objectives: This paper examined trends over time in condom use, and the prevalences of HIV and syphilis, among female sex workers (FSWs) in South India. 

Design: Data from three rounds of cross-sectional surveys were analysed, with HIV and high-titre syphilis prevalence as outcome variables. Multivariable analysis was applied to examine changes in prevalence over time. 

Setting: Five districts in Karnataka state, India. 

Participants: 7015 FSWs were interviewed over three rounds of surveys (round 1=2277; round 2=2387 and round 3=2351). Women who reported selling sex in exchange for money or gifts in the past month, and aged between 18 and 49 years, were included. 

Interventions: The surveys were conducted to monitor a targeted HIV prevention programme during 2004-2012. The main interventions included peer-led community outreach, services for the treatment and prevention of sexually transmitted infections, and empowering FSWs through community mobilisation.  

Results: HIV prevalence declined significantly from rounds 1 to 3, from 19.6% to 10.8%

(adjusted OR (AOR)=0.48, p<0.001); high-titre syphilis prevalence declined from 5.9% to 2.4% (AOR=0.50, p<0.001). Reductions were observed in most substrata of FSWs, although reductions among new sex workers, and those soliciting clients using mobile phones or from home, were not statistically significant. Condom use 'always' with occasional clients increased from 73% to 91% (AOR=1.9, p<0.001), with repeat clients from 52% to 86% (AOR=5.0, p<0.001) and with regular partners from 12% to 30% (AOR=4.2, p<0.001). Increased condom use was associated with exposure to the programme. However, condom use with regular partners remained low. 

Conclusions: The prevalences of HIV infection and high-titre syphilis among FSWs have steadily declined with increased condom use. Further reductions in prevalence will require intensification of prevention efforts for new FSWs and those soliciting clients using mobile phones or from home, as well as increasing condom use in the context of regular partnerships.

Abstract   Full-text [free] access

Editor’s notes: The HIV epidemic in India has remained largely concentrated in key populations, particularly among female sex workers. One of the most high profile HIV prevention efforts in India has been the Avahan AIDS initiative, which in Karnataka State has reached over 60 000 female sex workers since 2004. The initiative involves peer-mediated safer sex communications, intensive management of sexually transmitted infections, and facilitation of safer sex environments. In the final round of a repeat cross-sectional survey conducted between 2004 and 2011, investigators found that nearly all female sex workers were contacted by a peer educator, had seen a condom demonstration, or had visited a programme clinic. In that time, the prevalence of HIV fell from 19.6% to 10.8% (P<0.01) and the prevalence of new syphilis infections fell from 5.9% to 2.4% (P<0.01). However, HIV prevalence among new female sex workers remained high, reflecting the challenges in reaching women starting sex work before they become HIV positive. The programme is notable for its responsiveness to the HIV prevention needs of female sex workers and the current paper confirms continued increases in condom use and preventive services. However, with the changing nature of sex work, current challenges include preventive services for women soliciting sex through mobile phones, and reaching sex workers soon after they start sex work. 

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