Makerere researchers want sex workers added to high risk groups for COVID-19 vaccine

Ugandan Sex Workers
Amid distancing restrictions as a measure to mitigate COVID-19, Ugandan sex workers continue eloping with truck drivers from neighbouring countries. Illustration by Zoe van Dijk for Global Press Journal

Kampala, Uganda | URN | Researchers from Makerere University School of Public Health want the Government of Uganda to include sex workers on the list of people who will get the COVID-19 vaccine.

The researchers made their plea during the release of study findings on how communities at the border posts of Malaba and Mutkula adhered to the public health preventive measures. 

The government had ordered 18 million doses of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine. The first batch of vaccines is expected to arrive next month.

According to the health ministry, the first persons who will be vaccinated are people considered to be at high risk of being infected with the disease. These include health workers, teachers, security officers, people aged 50 and above and persons with co-morbidities.

Now the researchers say, sex workers should be added to the priority group believed to be at high risk of getting exposed to the disease due to the nature of their work.

Dr Joseph Matovu, the lead investigator of the study and also a behaviour change specialist says that due to the nature of their work, the government’s recommended Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) of wearing masks, washing hands and social distancing cannot work.

The study discovered that due to the high cost of facial masks, many prostitutes have resorted to using handkerchiefs, which Matovu says are not effective.

“They get handkerchiefs and give them to their customers but this is not safe. The use of handkerchiefs gives them a false sense of protection which can do more harm than good,” he said.

Dr Matovu says while sex work is illegal in the country, the dangers it poses cannot be ignored. 

He says while COVID-19 is not sexually transmitted, it can still be passed on from one unsuspecting person to another. 

Last year, the health ministry sought the help of Kampala socialite Shanita Namuyimbwa, also known as, ‘Bad Black’ to popularize the ‘Tonsemberera’ campaign. The campaign targeted sex workers and asked them to keep away from truck drivers as a means of not being infected with COVID-19.

Diana Natukunda, the Executive Director of the  Women’s Organisation Network for Human Rights Advocacy (WONETHA) – which specialises in advocating for the rights of sex workers says due to the nature of sex work, they need to be looked at as a priority group. 

Read Also: Commercial sex workers turn cargo trucks into lodges in Elegu

Emmanuel Ainebyoona, the Senior Public Relations Officer at the Ministry of Health says sex workers will be vaccinated when their turn comes. He says the first groups to be vaccinated will be those that have already been singled out.

“All those people will be vaccinated but we are doing it in a staggered manner starting with people who are more at risk to get infected. Eventually, everyone else will be vaccinated. Those included,” he said.