Prosecutions of HIV-Positive Sex Workers: Bad Human Rights and Bad Public Health

Greece has been in the news for prosecuting HIV positive sex workers and posting the  women’s photographs on the Internet.

In the course of our research on sex work at the Michael Kirby Centre for Public Health and Human Rights in Melbourne we have noticed that public health prosecutions and ‘naming and shaming’ of HIV positive sex workers occurs in cities and towns across the world, including in the UK and US. We are also observing a general increase in mandatory HIV testing and the emergence of various other links between medical procedures and law enforcement in the context of female sex work.

Nobody doubts that these actions violate established and fundamental human rights, including the Greek health authorities. They raise an age old discourse by claiming that the treatment of the women is subjugates human rights for valid public health considerations.

Successful HIV prevention is known to depend on a large portion of sex workers and clients using condoms and accessing STI and HIV treatment. Nobody doubts that HIV testing is crucial, especially now that there is effective ARV treatment that also significantly reduces
transmission of the virus. The strategies for increasing access to testing and treatment that have been successful are reducing the burden of criminalisation and discrimination and providing respectful services  including quality health care, information and social
support. Crucially this has to apply to migrant sex workers too.

A randomised controlled trial may not be possible but there is sufficient research and experience to compare the results of ‘rights based’ approaches with  heavy handed tactics like those used in Greece that have been shown to drive sex industries underground and reduce the number of sex workers reached by HIV prevention services. Thus it is clear that repeatedly testing a few ‘legal’ sex workers while alienating ‘illegal’ sex workers from services and testing them forcibly in the wake of sporadic raids is not good public health.

Sometimes medical ethicists grapple with complex cases that genuinely raise conflicts between human rights and public health. This is not such a case. The Greek health authorities and many other governments and local authorities that have taken similar actions against sex workers have both the human rights and the public health very wrong.

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