The overall prevalence of HIV and syphilis among low-fee female sex workers in our study were 4.7% and 15.0%, respectively. Compared with previous studies reporting HIV and syphilis prevalence among FSWs, the prevalence found in our study were about twice higher [6, 15]. There is an alarmingly high prevalence of HIV and STI that still exist among low-fee FSWs despite extensive HIV prevention efforts targeting FSWs over the past decades.
The prevalence of HIV was distributed differently among participants working in different provinces. Compared with Guangxi and Hunan, participants employed in Yunnan exhibited the highest prevalence (8.9%). However, IDUs in Kaiyuan city disproportionately contributed to the prevalence. Of the 30 IDUs in our study, 13 IDUs (43%) and all of the HIV positive IDUs were based in Kaiyuan city. Previous studies also found high levels of HIV infection among FSWs in this city [14, 20–22]. After omitting participants of Kaiyuan city from the analysis, HIV prevalence among participants working in Yunnan was 0.6%, the lowest compared with the other two provinces. Hence, intervention strategies among low-fee FSWs working in Yunnan should focus on cities with sizeable populations of low-fee FSWs exchanging sex for drugs, and enroll them into methadone maintenance treatment and needle exchange programs .
We found that among low-fee FSWs, differences in HIV and syphilis prevalence were attributable to venue type. Participants who solicit in self-rented rooms and “market day” buildings were twice as likely to test positive for both HIV and syphilis infection than those soliciting in other venues. Additionally, the former were more likely to be older, less educated, estimated an older age for their clients and charged less than 20 RMB for vaginal sex. They may lack self-perceived risk and knowledge of HIV/STI, and may be unable to charge more for vaginal sex due to decreased desirability resulting from older age [24, 25]. These FSWs may therefore be under more pressure to not use condoms when requested by a client, despite the high risk of HIV/STI infection. In addition, these FSWs work independently, are not controlled nor protected by gatekeepers, and isolated from their peers, which renders the influence of gatekeepers and peers to promote consistent condom use unfeasible [26, 27]. Intervention design and implementation must take into account these differences between subgroups of low-fee FSWs and prioritize specifically targeting low-fee FSWs who solicit in self-rented rooms and “market day” buildings.
The reported rate of consistent condom use in the past 30 days was 50% in our study, which was lower than in other FSW studies in China [5, 28]. The actual rate of condom use may be even lower since participants may have self-reported an inflated condom use rate . Inconsistent condom use increases the infection risk of STI like syphilis, which facilitates HIV transmission [30, 31]. Accordingly, we found that low-fee FSWs who did not use condoms consistently were nearly twice likely to be syphilis infected. When we explored why condom use did not always occur, the most common reason was that in order to earn enough money, FSWs often accepted clients’ refusal to use condoms. Like other groups of low-wage migrant women, many low-fee FSWs face the economic pressure of supporting a family [13, 32], which may be a factor determining condom use with clients [3, 33, 34]. Client refusal of condom use may be attributed to two possible explanations. First, nearly half of the clients were estimated by study participants to be 50 years old and above, and it is likely that many clients experienced difficulty using condoms due to erectile dysfunction . Second, previous studies have found that clients of low-fee FSWs have insufficient knowledge and risk perception of HIV/STI infection and may be unlikely to view condom use as necessary [36, 37].
Consistent condom use should be promoted through interventions that take into account the specific context of risk behavior for low-fee FSWs. Efforts to increase awareness of consistent condom use should be coupled with tactics that do not negatively impact FSWs’ earnings and environmental-level supports . Successful negotiations of condom use such as helping the client to maintain an erection, or persuading the clients through disease fear arousal [39, 40], can be considered among low-fee FSWs, especially those soliciting in self-rented rooms and “market day” venues. Moreover, for low-fee FSWs working in venues, environmental supports like requiring managers of venues to make condoms available on-site and funding free condoms to FSWs may also decrease risk behavior [34, 38, 41].
HIV-positive low-fee FSWs often continue to be actively involved in commercial sex . Early detection and treatment is needed to decrease risk of HIV transmission. In our study, we found that although two thirds of low-fee FSWs had a non-local household registration, they did not change their work location frequently. Moreover, HIV infection is three times more likely to be detected among low-fee FSWs with local household registration compared to non-local FSWs. These findings indicate that low-fee FSWs migrate infrequently and that venue-based testing and further ART management may be feasible. To promote HIV testing, confidential and accessible testing technologies can be implemented in venues directly, such as rapid testing and mobile testing vans, which have successfully reached other hidden, vulnerable populations [43–45]. These measures need to be coordinated with other entities, including the local government and public security bureaus. Despite policies maintaining confidentiality, in practice, sex workers are often compelled to leave the venue or detained in detention centers upon detection of HIV, and these practices may cause FSWs to refuse HIV testing or migrate elsewhere . Local governments should develop and implement supportive policies to work with HIV positive sex workers and prioritize linking them to national free ART .
There are several limitations in our study. First, the overall sample size in our study is somewhat small compared to other FSW studies. However, the sample is still reasonably representative since it targets only low-fee FSWs, and experienced local outreach workers are familiar with the community in each study site mapped and approached all low-fee venues, including self-rented rooms and “market day” building which have rarely been described in the public health literature on Chinese FSWs before. These results highlight the need for further research on implementing interventions targeting specific low-fee FSW groups. Second, HIV and syphilis prevalence among low-fee FSWs who solicit in self-rented rooms or “market day” venues may be underestimated. The primary reason was that these venues were sometimes not recognizable to outsiders, whereas venues like guesthouses and hair/beauty salons were more easily accessible since they have obvious markers of commercial sex. Thirdly, information biases particularly those related to condom use may exist in our study, despite the extensive training on survey administration and working with sex workers that study staff received. The rate of condom use may be inflated due to desire for conformity or stigma. To confirm self-reported condom use, questions on condom availability and correct condom usage can be added in future studies.