Keeping sex workers safe

Westmead Hospital Sexual Health Centre nurse unit manager Jennifer Walsh, clinical nurse consultant Melissa Power and Mandarin-speaking health promotion officer Maggie Ma.

An outreach scheme that concentrates on western Sydney parlours has improved access to sexual health screening for Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) sex workers identifying and treating conditions that may otherwise have not been detected.

Sexual health nurses from Westmead Hospital’s Western Sydney Sexual Health Centre (WSSHC) designed the program to overcome the barriers to sexual health screening faced by a large and transient population of sex workers in the Western Sydney Local Health District (WSLHD).

Data collected has identified outreach screening as an acceptable alternative to the traditional setting for sex workers in 45 parlours in WSLHD.

Outreach screening with a Mandarin-speaking healthcare worker has shown to improve access to services by removing language barriers. Follow-up and management of positive diagnoses provides an opportunity for safe sex education and ongoing engagement with sexual health services.

WSSHC nurse unit manager Jennifer Walsh says the sex workers in WSLHD parlours are predominantly from CALD backgrounds, and often newly arrived to Australia.

“Outreach screening is done weekly by a sexual health nurse and a Mandarin-speaking multicultural health promotion officer, with a focus on Mandarin-speaking sex workers in parlours,” Ms Walsh said.

She says the program overcomes barriers such as workers not knowing where a service is, or even that it exists.

“We go out to the parlours the sex workers are working from and encourage them to get STI check-ups every three months.”

WSSHC clinical nurse consultant Melissa Power said the relationships formed by the health promotion officer with Mandarin-speaking sex workers and owners of parlours is pivotal, and has built trust and created opportunities for voluntary screening and for further education about sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

“Data collected over the past five years indicates some of the participants are new to sex work, recently arrived to Australia, and have no access to Medicare,” Ms Power said.

“Providing education and screening to outreach is paramount, as these workers would probably not present to a health service.”

Workers who return a positive diagnosis are followed up and treated at the main WSSHC clinic in Parramatta.

“Follow-up and management of positive diagnoses provides further opportunity for education and ongoing engagement with our service.”

A recent survey of participants found 90 per cent rated the service as good, very good or excellent.

“We are planning to further identify and evaluate other key findings for publication later this year.”

Melissa Power,  Jennifer Walsh and clinical nurse specialist Arlie Rochford were awarded the Australasian Sexual Health and HIV Nurses Association (ASHHNA) Poster Prize for the project at the 2017 Sexual Health Conference in Canberra.