DURBAN - SITHEMBILE Mkhize, 35, not her real name, is a sex worker who is HIV-negative and vows to stay that way, thanks to the Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEp) pill, she takes every day.
Studies have shown that PrEp provides between 92% and 99% prevention and reduction in HIV risk for HIV-negative individuals who take the pills as directed.
Mkhize, who lives with her two sons in a RDP house in Umlazi south of Durban, starts her day at 5am by preparing them for school.
Before she walks them to school which is about 3km from her house she takes the PrEp pill, which she calls the blue pill because of its colour.
The South African government started distributing PrEP pills to sex workers for free in March in a bid to curb the spread of HIV.
“The blue pill is helpful to us because we sometimes find ourselves in positions where our clients force us to have unprotected sex with them. The next thing you are HIV positive,” said Mkhize.
In 2015,health researchers found in 2015 that up to 70% of sex workers in Durban, Cape Town and Johannesburg were HIV positive.
“I don’t want to be part of those statistics that’s why I rely on the blue pill and take it consistently every morning,” said Mkhize.
Mkhize, who wanted to become a lawyer when she was growing up, said she had dropped out of school at the age of 16 when in Grade 10 when her parents died in a car accident.
Seven years later she was persuaded by a friend (who later died due to HIV related illnesses) to become a sex worker.
“I fell into depression. Sometimes I wanted to kill myself. I had no one to turn to.I faced unemployment because I did not have any qualifications. When I couldn’t make ends meet, I decided to be a sex worker. But I have kept this secret from people who are close to me,” she said.
“My kids ask me what the blue pill is for and I tell them it just a pain-killing tablet. When one of them is sick, they suggest I give them the blue pill,” she said, laughing.
Although Mkhize takes the PrEp pill every day, she said she still insists that her clients wear condoms.
“You can’t take any chances in this game. We are always told that despite being effective, the blue pill is not 100% preventative,” she said.
Another sex worker, Nokuthula Mhlongo, 31, (also not her real name) who has been in the industry for eight years, said the introduction of the PrEp pill had saved many people’s lives.
“Most of the people I started sex work with have died from HIV-related illnesses. But there is a sense of hope now after the pill was introduced,” she said.
Mhlongo said she had originally arrived in Durban from the rural village of Nongoma, in northern KZN, in search of a better life.
“When that failed, I decided to join prostitution to make ends meet for myself and my daughter. But I wouldn’t encourage any women, particularly the younger ones who are in demand, to join this industry. Even though there are innovations like the blue pill, it is a deadly game,” she warned.