The expansion of mining activities in Solwezi District in Zambia's North-Western Province has spurred a rise in sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and health officials fear this could indicate an increase in the region's HIV infection rate.
A report by the district health office showed that STI cases trebled in 2005, the year the Kansanshi Mine opened in Solwezi. Figures from the mine's clinic show that one in five employees have tested HIV positive.
Geoffrey Kaleji, a senior clinical officer in the provincial health department, said the area had experienced an alarming upsurge in commercial sex work. "We have prostitutes from all over the country flocking here now because of the boom in mining activities. Our lodges are fully booked by them, while others stay in the squatter areas."
An employee at Kansanshi Mine, who did not wish to be named, said miners engaged in commercial sex because of their working and living conditions.
"We work 12 hours underground for 10 days without break. Five days you work at night, the other five days you work in the day from six in the morning to six in the evening.
"Our breaks are very short and most of us are from the Copperbelt [Zambia's main mining area], where we have left our families because we have no accommodation here. So what do you want us to do? We cannot afford to travel back home to see our wives and our children whenever we are off duty," he said.
Acknowledging the high incidence of HIV and STIs in Solwezi, Charles Phiri, Kansanshi's HIV co-ordinator, said the mine had embarked on an awareness programme targeted at miners and their sexual partners.
So far the response has been positive, with over 50 percent of employees coming to the clinic for voluntary HIV counselling and testing. Phiri attributed the high testing uptake to the provision of a comprehensive medical package for mine employees.
Kaleji said the health department, working with partners such as the Society for Family Health, a nonprofit social marketing organisation, and the United Nations Population Fund, had also scaled up HIV awareness raising activities and the distribution of condoms at guesthouses and clinics in the district.
According to a 2002 health survey, North-Western Province has an HIV prevalence of about eight percent, the second lowest in the country.
But the opening a large new mine in Lumwana, 65km west of Solwezi, in the next two or three years is likely to bring a huge influx of miners and, potentially, a spike in HIV prevalence.