Calls are growing for South Africa to legalize prostitution before next year’s soccer World Cup in an effort to limit HIV infections among the millions of fans visiting the country for the tournament.
A leading health specialist says that the World Cup presents a huge risk and that there is an urgent need to start registering prostitutes and screening them for the virus. It is estimated that 50 percent of the country’s sex workers are infected.
Ian Sanne, head of the clinical HIV research unit at Johannesburg’s Witwatersrand University, said the party atmosphere being touted by the soccer authorities, travel companies and the South African government was a green light to alcohol abuse and promiscuity among fans next summer.
Around 3.2 million tickets will be sold for the matches. A million will go to South African residents, with the rest split between international fans and sponsors.
Sanne said not only would the visitors be at risk but young South Africans and the sex workers too, opening the way for the virus to spread at a highly increased rate.
He called for laws to regulate the practice of sex workers.
“Interim legalization of prostitution would be best for the country rather than leave it uncontrolled,” he said. “Sex workers need to register with a board that will regulate their practice and give certification to practice, but they have to go through a mandatory HIV testing process first, and only those who test negative will be allowed to practice.”
South Africa is the center of the global HIV epidemic with the world’s highest infection rates. An estimated one in two working prostitutes is living with the virus.
Infection rates among women aged 15 to 24 declined slightly from 22.1 percent in 2007 to 21.7 percent last year, but among women in the 30 to 34 age group, the infection rate was 40.4% last year.
But while Sanne said authorities should use the World Cup as a platform to raise awareness on the need for testing, leading AIDS and HIV campaigners responded furiously that it would take concern for foreigners rather than its own citizens to make the government act.
“The clear way forward to help tackle the tens of thousands of women forced into prostitution through poverty is to legalize it now, not to make it a temporary measure for the World Cup,” said Vuyiseka Dubula of the Treatment Action Campaign.
The former police commissioner, Jackie Selebi, now suspended over corruption allegations, caused dismay when he first suggested legalizing prostitution and public drinking for the duration of the World Cup, arguing it would free up his officers to deal with security, but the issue is hugely contentious in a country where the sex trade is regarded as immoral and unacceptable.
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