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UC San Diego Study Aims To Reduce The Risks In The Sex Trade

Evening Edition

Above: Female sex workers in Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez are at high risk of becoming infected with HIV. So are their clients, many of whom come from the U.S. Researchers from UC San Diego say a brief counseling session can help reduce sex workers' risky behavior. (Video by Katie Euphrat)

— Female sex workers in Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez are at high risk of becoming infected with HIV. So are their clients, many of whom come from the U.S.

Researchers from UC San Diego say a brief counseling session can help reduce sex workers’ risky behavior. A new study tested this intervention in the two Mexican border cities.

In Tijuana’s red light district called La Zona Norte, you can find a sex worker anytime, even in the middle of the day.

Just ask Linda Sandoval, who's often standing on one of the street corners.

"You come right here, and you look for a girl. You get whatever you want, you do whatever you want, you know, for a little bit of money," Sandoval said.

The 29-year-old Linda Sandoval has been selling herself on the streets of Tijuana for more than a decade.

A dingy yellow hotel down a narrow alley charges $3 for 20 minutes in a room.

“You just stand here and you just wait for a client to get here, and take you to the room," Sandoval said.

She started as a stripper in local clubs when she was 13. She began shooting drugs shortly thereafter.

Sandoval said sex work is humiliating. Clients ask her to do things you couldn’t imagine.

"They use you, actually, they use you," the petite brunette said. "But you use drugs, and you want the money just quick, you know, you just want to get it fast, and you just want to get your dose. So it don’t matter what you have to do to get your dose."

And that includes having unprotected sex, or sharing dirty needles.

This kind of high-risk behavior takes its toll.

An estimated 6 percent of sex workers in Tijuana are infected with HIV. Twelve percent of sex workers who shoot drugs have the disease.

That’s 40 times higher than the HIV rate in Mexico as a whole.

Recently, researchers from UC San Diego and Mexico completed a study. It involved nearly 600 HIV-negative female sex workers in Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez.

The study tested whether a brief intervention could reduce risky behavior, and diminish the rate of new infections.

The women received a 30-minute counseling session on how to negotiate safe sex, and one on how to reduce risky injection practices.

Each session was either a lecture, or a more interactive format.

Every four months, women were tested for sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV and syphilis.

After one year, the data was analyzed.

Dr. Steffanie Strathdee, who heads up the division of global public health for UC San Diego's School of Medicine, directed the study. She said the results were dramatic.

"The interactive version of the safer sex intervention was associated with a 60 percent decrease in the rate of new HIV and STD infections," Strathdee said. "That was very significant, and that we saw consistently in both cities, Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez."

In Tijuana, researchers found women who received either version of the safe injection intervention did equally well. And both groups had lower rates of new infections than women in Ciudad Juarez.

Strathdee eventually figured out the reason for the discrepancy: Tijuana has a much more robust clean syringe exchange program than Ciudad Juarez.

"So the bottom line," Strathdee concluded, "is if you’re a city or a policy maker that’s making a decision on how to reduce injection risk for HIV, it’s much more important to have coverage of sterile syringes through either needle exchange or pharmacies, than it is to provide an intervention like this."

Clean syringes cost about 5 cents a piece. The half-hour interventions are inexpensive, too.

Some question the value of spending any money to prevent sex workers from becoming infected.

But UC San Diego assistant professor Jose Luis Burgos said it’s a sound investment.

"Eventually, many of them change their lives. So potentially they are going to have children," Burgos said. "They are going to have interactions with people from Tijuana, from Mexico, and the U.S. So I think that it’s an investment that makes sense, not only for Mexico but for both countries.”

Linda Sandoval hopes to get out of the sex trade soon. She’s met a guy she’d like to have a family with.

In the meantime, she said the interventions changed the way she does business. These days, she uses clean needles. And she insists that all of her clients wear condoms. Sandoval said most of them say yes.

"Let’s use a condom, you’re right, you know, I have a family, I have a wife, or whatever, or for myself. And some of them, they don’t care, and they’re like, alright, you don’t want to do it, I’ll find somebody else. I’m like, alright," she said smiling.

UC San Diego's Strathdee is presenting her study this week at the International AIDS Conference in Washington, DC.

Video by Katie Euphrat

Comments

Avatar for user 'Missionaccomplished'

Missionaccomplished | July 25, 2012 at 11:11 a.m. ― 2 years, 1 month ago

"The women received a 30-minute counseling session on how to negotiate safe sex, and one on how to reduce risky injection practices. "

By whom, Mr. Goldberg?

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Avatar for user 'Missionaccomplished'

Missionaccomplished | July 25, 2012 at 11:15 a.m. ― 2 years, 1 month ago

Actually, the "Zona Norte" part is not entirely accurate. Zona Norte encompases a whole area of Tijuana which borders the US and INCLUDES a fire station. There is even a radio station, that when it gives its address, includes "Zona Norte." This radio station IS NOT in the red light district. The red light district itself is more accurately known as a "Tolerance Zone."

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Avatar for user 'Natalie Walsh'

Natalie Walsh, KPBS Staff | July 25, 2012 at 3:48 p.m. ― 2 years, 1 month ago

Missionaccomplished,
The counseling session were conducted by UCSD staff, led by Dr. Steffanie Strathdee, who heads up the division of global public health for UC San Diego's School of Medicine.

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Avatar for user 'Missionaccomplished'

Missionaccomplished | July 25, 2012 at 4:33 p.m. ― 2 years, 1 month ago

Thank you for the response that clears it up.

On a more general note, there is a contradiction here, one the one hand Mr. Goldberg is sympathetic to the efforts by thIS UCSD group, on the other, it is well known that these women loathe being videotaped, for obvious reasons--although I did see one's face being blurred.but of course THEY DON'T KNOW THAT. That's why I am surprised that "Linda Sandoval" even consented to an interview. Is she a Us citizen or have dual citizenship? She speaks well enough English for an interview. Most of the girls/women, are from other states.

FYI Mr. Goldberg, as to the use of the term "sex worker," the highly respected femninist journalist and author Lydia Cacho, of the newspaper EL UNIVERSAL, who has written extensively on child prostituion and pornography, not just in Mexico but on an international level, REJECTS the term sex worker because it was coinced by the male-dominated COYOTE group here in the US. She opposes it due to the fact tha many of these women are forced, coerced, tricked or threatened into such activity, particularly in places like Cancun where she founded a shelter for such victims. She does not shy from calling them prostitutes or sex slaves if that is the case.

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Avatar for user 'Missionaccomplished'

Missionaccomplished | July 25, 2012 at 10:41 p.m. ― 2 years, 1 month ago

Burgos says: "So potentially they are going to have children,"

Uh, it's BECAUSE they have children or a child which is one of the reasons they end up there. Child support laws are weak in Mexico and are only enforced if the mother is or was married. Many never bothered.

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