August 15, 2008
Baltimore health officials are taking steps to integrate sex workers into the fight against HIV/AIDS, from data collection to outreach.
"There's a growing recognition at the health department of the importance and need for better outreach and services to this group of women," said Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, the city's health commissioner.
In January, city officials began collaborating with the advocacy group Power Inside to provide food and outreach to sex workers twice a week. And the city has started collecting data about prostitutes, along with other high-risk groups, to help direct prevention and outreach efforts, said Dr. Laura Herrera, Baltimore's deputy health commissioner. Ultimately, that will be used to help craft a citywide HIV prevention plan, said Sharfstein.
HIV treatment and health care can seem like less immediate concerns to sex workers worried about safety, housing and drug addiction, said Sidney Ford, executive director of You Are Never Alone, an outreach group. He estimates that up to 40 percent of his clients are HIV-positive, and about 20-30 percent are from out of town.
HIV cases will not decline in Baltimore without tackling the city's drug epidemic, said Becky Brothemarkle, clinical instructor at the University of Maryland School of Nursing. Addicts regularly place themselves at risk to get high, and even women who are not prostitutes may resort to sex work if they need a fix, she said.
In 2006, 86 percent of Maryland's new HIV diagnoses were among black residents, according to the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene's AIDS Administration. And 49 percent of HIV infections were acquired heterosexually , making this the top risk category. However, needle exchange programs have driven diagnoses down among injecting drug users, said Heather Hauck the administration's director.