A FORTNIGHT after 141 sex workers were rescued in a raid at a brothel on Grant Road, health workers associated with the National Aids Control Organisation (NACO) were able to contact three HIV-infected sex workers to restart treatment at a Boisar shelter home.
The workers said they were unable to contact at least 12 others, infected with the immunodeficiency virus, as they had fled when the Simplex building hotel was raided on May 26.
Officials from NACO said the brothel, with a dormitory set-up, housed close to 400 sex workers. They added that of them, 15 were diagnosed with HIV and put on antiretroviral therapy (ART).
Health workers stress on preventive counselling for HIV
The NACO has guidelines for prevention of HIV transmission for sex workers, men who have sexual intercourse with men, transgenders, and injectable drug users, but has no protocol for HIV sensitisation in cases where sex workers are rescued and taken to shelter homes. With prostitution still not broadly legal, health workers have demanded for the decriminalisation of prostitution to allow sex workers to openly identify their profession and undergo preventive counselling for HIV.
During the four-hour raid on May 26, 141 sex workers were rescued while 19 agents and 65 customers were arrested.
“Other sex workers, who were not arrested that night, have fled. Customers have stopped coming here. We suspect these workers must be providing their services at other locations,” said Seema Sayyad, manager of NGO Aastha Parivaar. The NGO works for health and education of sex workers.
Field workers said the 12 sex workers to fled were infected with HIV and required a daily dose of ART.
“Most sex workers do not give their real names, so tracking them down is difficult unless they visit the ART centre. It is common for them to drop out of treatment during raids,” Sayyad added.
According to the Mumbai District Aids Control Society (MDACS), there are 20,853 sex workers in their records, of whom 511 are HIV-positive and 472 are on ART. Across Mumbai, there are 38,254 HIV-positive patients.
Sex workers are at a high risk of HIV transmission. Field workers associated with the MDACS meet sex workers daily to distribute free condoms, check whether they are taking daily medication, counsel them for treatment adherence, and ensure a six-monthly viral load test.
Following the raid, Senior Inspector Suryakant Bangar said the sex workers were taken to shelter homes in Boisar, Ulhasnagar and Chembur. “No HIV tests were done on them,” he told The Indian Express.
The MDACS officials first shared a list of HIV patients with the police, but the names of the patients did not match police records. Many sex workers change their names because of the stigma associated with HIV. The MDACS and NGOs then contacted the women and child development department for permission to visit the three shelter homes and physically identify patients.
On Monday, at least three HIV-infected sex workers, one aged 27 and the other two 35, were found at the Boisar shelter home. Their treatment was restarted a fortnight after the raid. Field workers are still searching for the other 12 for treatment adherence and many are suspected to have moved to Nallasopara.
“For prevention of HIV transmission, we counsel sex workers on using condoms and encourage safe sex practices. The prevention service has been disrupted as the remaining sex workers are not traceable,” said Dr Shrikala Acharya, project director at the MDACS.