BARCELONA, Spain, July 9 (UPI) -- Deeply religious brothel workers in Nigeria believe their faith in God will protect them from contracting the virus that causes AIDS, researchers said Tuesday.
Researchers from the Society for Family Health in Abuja, Nigeria, suggested that these religious beliefs may be contributing to rising rates of infection in the brothels.
"While it is clear that many of the sex workers engaged in unprotected risky sex, they incorrectly judged their risk as low apparently because many felt their belief in God offered them protection from infection," said Zaccharus Akinyemi, a researcher with the social services agency in Africa's most populous nation.
In a series of focus groups discussions, Akinyemi said the researchers discovered that many of the women considered themselves religious and recognized that their commercial sex work was opposed by their faith.
Nevertheless, he said, one of the dangerous outcomes of sex workers' reliance on God for protection is the emergence of a belief in a faith-based invulnerability to the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Because they believe they will never become infected they also believe they have no need to use condoms.
He said statistics indicate that faith-based protection is failing. In 1991-1992 about 17 percent of sex workers in Nigeria were HIV-infected; in 1995-1996 that infection rate rose to around 35 percent. Akinyemi said he believes that the rate continues to rise among the 75,000 commercial sex workers in Nigeria.
In the discussions, he said typical comments of the sex workers were: "It is only God that gives protection." "I can't catch it in Jesus' name." "Whether I use a condom or not it's only God who can protect." "If God says it will happen, so will it happen." "We will not die, unless we reach the time God says we will die."
"People can always come up with reasons why they don't need to use condom during sex,' said Dr. Robert Janssen, director of the division of HIV and AIDS prevention at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, Ga.
"There are sex workers in the Philippines who believe that going to church will lessen their sins and therefore they won't contract HIV," said Geena Gonzales of Manila, an HIV-infected former sex worker and a board member of the Netherlands-based Global network of People Living with HIV/AIDS.
"However, there are also sex workers who believe that HIV/AIDS is a punishment for their activity," she told United Press International.
In another discussion at the symposium on worldwide problems involving commercial sex work and its relation to the AIDS epidemic, Kristin Dunkle, a scientist with the Medical Research Council, Pretoria, South Africa, explored why women engage in transactional sex -- trading sexual favors for either cash, products or services with casual or long-term "secret" partners in addition to their regular partners.
Of the 1,395 women surveyed at a hospital and three clinics in Soweto, South Africa, about half the women between the ages of 16 to 44 admitted to having casual sex encounters. Of that group, 42.4 percent said they had engaged in transactional sex.
Dunkle said 95 percent of the women received cash in return for their sexual favors, although often the cash was offered so that they could purchase needed goods or services. She said 43 percent of the women said they had accepted food in exchange for sex; 36 percent said they did it for articles of clothing; 36 percent performed sex in exchange for transportation; 33 percent offered sex for cosmetics; 14 percent engaged in sex to obtain items for their children or family; 12 percent traded sex for a place to sleep and 8 percent received payment of school fees for sex.
The researchers determined that women who engaged in transactional were at a 50 percent greater risk of being infected with HIV than were women who didn't engage in the behavior.
"Prevention strategies for women should explicitly address transactional sexual exchanges," Dunkle said.