, 9:35,
Open Access This content is freely available online to anyone, anywhere at any time.
Date: 06 Aug 2012

Reducing harm from HIV/AIDS misconceptions among female sex workers in Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico: A cross sectional analysis



HIV prevalence is increasing among female sex workers (FSWs) in Mexico’s Northern border region, who experience multiple occupational risks. Improving vulnerable populations’ education, empowerment, and access to preventive services are important components of harm reduction strategies. Given the increasing interest in adapting harm reduction principles from drug use to sex work and other public health responses to the HIV epidemic, we used a sex work harm reduction framework to guide our investigation of FSWs’ HIV knowledge.


From 2004–2006, FSWs aged ≥18 years in Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez participated in a behavioral intervention study and completed structured interviews. Measures included HIV knowledge assessment and factors within each domain of our theoretical framework for sex work harms: (1) socio-demographic factors that may lead to sex work, (2) sex work characteristics and behaviors that may lead to harm, and (3) mutually reinforcing harms that lead to sex work and result from it (e.g., drug abuse). Negative binomial regression identified factors independently associated with suboptimal HIV knowledge (i.e., incorrect responses during the HIV knowledge assessment).


Among 924 FSWs, the median proportion of incorrect responses was nearly one third (28% incorrect). Examination of item responses revealed misconceptions regarding specific transmission and prevention mechanisms, including prevention of mother to child transmission. Suboptimal HIV knowledge was independently associated with older age, lower education, living in Tijuana (vs. Ciudad Juarez), inconsistent condom use for vaginal sex with male clients, and lacking prior HIV testing.


Our application of a sex work harm reduction framework to the study of FSWs’ HIV knowledge is an important first step in enhancing HIV prevention efforts in Northern Mexican border cities. Our findings imply that interventions should identify and discredit local HIV misconceptions to improve knowledge of specific HIV transmission routes and self-protective strategies (e.g., condom negotiation). Interventions will require materials appropriate for women from diverse socio-economic backgrounds and may benefit from innovative harm reduction approaches such as peer education and outreach.