AH HONG'S clients know that when they use her services, they need to put on a condom. The 49-year-old prostitute, who has been one for the past 15 years, began insisting on the rubber only after she attended a
workshop on prevention of sexually-transmissible diseases two years ago.
"I was scared after that, scared that I might get AIDS," she says in Cantonese.
Such efforts, led by the Department of STD Control (DSC), to educate women like Ah Hong are starting to pay off. The proportion of prostitutes, who accept only condom-clad customers, has gone up to nine in 10 today. Only five in 10 said no to clients without condoms when the campaign, called Project Protect, started in 1992, said Dr Roy Chan, who heads the DSC clinic.
It is now starting a new peer scheme to ensure 100-per cent compliance by prostitutes who register themselves with the health authorities. Soon the likes of Ah Hong may become teachers of fellow prostitutes on how to guard against STDs.
The department first began holding weekly two-hour workshops for prostitutes in 1992, in response to studies showing that more than half of STD/HIV patients here were infected by prostitutes.
All "legal" prostitutes, as opposed to freelancers, who are not registered, are required to attend at least one Project Protect workshop. During the workshop, they learn the signs, symptoms and
complications of STD/HIV infections. They are also taught negotiation skills, how to get clients to use condoms and how to turn away those who refuse to do so.
Project Protect is part of the Medical Surveillance Scheme, first introduced in 1977. Apart from registering themselves, prostitutes under this scheme have to undergo regular screening and treatment for bacterial STDs. Last year, about 1,200 prostitutes sought regular medical check-ups at the clinic, says National Skin Centre medical director Goh Chee Leok.
Although the screening programme has helped reduce the infection rates of gonorrhoea, chlamydia and HIV among sex workers here over the years, viral STDs, like HIV, genital herpes and warts, among Singaporeans in general have been on the rise.
In the past two years, the DSC clinic has also started on two other educational projects for people working in places where sex liaisons are likely to occur. It started Project Masseuse in 1994 for massage parlour owners and masseurs. Project BNL, for proprietors and hostesses in bars, nightclubs and lounges, was launched late last year. Owners and workers were invited to attend free STD/HIV workshops conducted over a period of three to six months. Those who took part were also given free HIV testing.
Project Masseuse had an attendance rate of 90 per cent, while Project BNL saw only half of BNL owners and a "fair" number of hostesses turning up. There are plans to hold another round of
Masseuse Project workshops soon.
Ah Hong, for one, is an enthusiastic supporter of Project Protect workshops. And no wonder. Since she started insisting that clients put on the condom, her gonorrhoea, a STD characterised by vaginal discharge and painful urination, has improved.
"Now, I don't have to go for injection anymore. In the past, every month I had to go." -- by LEA WEE, The Straits Times