Adding injury to insult in Vancouver: Seriously flawed study gets reported in a totally unconscionable way

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"HIV/AIDS in Vancouver, British Columbia: A growing epidemic" (McInnes et al 2009) was just published in the peer-reviewed Harm Reduction Journal (PDF). The study's abstract clearly states that intravenous drug users and men who have sex with men are involved in the vast majority of HIV transmissions in Vancouver (IDUs and MSMs in the study's objectifying abbreviations). But you'd never know this from reading the Vancouver Sun.

Pamela Fayerman's article, "Local study sheds light on HIV: More than a quarter of female sex trade workers in city infected with virus" begins with a headline that is not just sensationalistic headline but is also false. The study doesn't show that at all. The study isn't based on the sort of data that could even begin to sort out what proportion of female sex workers in Vancouver have HIV because it is based on data collected only from prostitutes working on the street doing what is called "survival sex work." Fayerman's article ignores the majority of the study's findings to focus on one small and inaccurately presented piece of information.

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The study itself is problematic. The findings are based not on actual interviews or conversations or survey of current sex workers involved in a representative range of work environments. Instead they are based on findings of a few studies that examined only a small subset of sex workers: those whose work is largely street-related and concerned with basic day-to-day survival. These are women (yes, the study only reports on "female sex workers") who are often struggling with poverty, addiction, and homelessness, and who are the most vulnerable to violence and least able to insist on safer sex. These are women who need support from society rather than to be blamed for its problems. While McInnes et al are clear that sex workers are the smallest source of risk among the three studied, they are likely still overestimating the risk given the very vulnerable population that their data comes from.

This irresponsible reporting of a flawed study is very likely to magnify the stigma of sex work, give readers a false sense of the risk that prostitution poses to public health, and shift focus away from larger populations that pose a greater public health risk. It will be used to support an inappropriate and ineffective allocation of public funds to combat a problem that is misunderstood. And it will deepen the distrust between sex workers and researchers.

This is the kind of irresponsible news coverage that causes a culture of violence toward sex workers and a disregard for their humanity while setting back attempts to improve public health for all.

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