An increasing number of countries worldwide are making spreading HIV a crime, according to a new report from the International Planned
Health officials fear the trend could undermine gains made in
fighting the Aids pandemic and provoke a surge in cases. Globally, about 33 million people are thought to have HIV and nearly 3 million people are newly infected every year.
"If the law is applied badly, this could set us back and do incredible damage," said Paul de Lay, an Aids expert at UNAids, who was not involved in the report.
De Lay said the laws could result in forced testing and drive the
epidemic underground as people hide their HIV status, allowing the
virus to spread unnoticed.
58 countries have criminalised transmitting the virus
According to Planned Parenthood, 58 countries worldwide have laws
that criminalise transmitting HIV or use existing laws to prosecute people for
transmitting the virus. Another 33 countries are considering similar
legislation. Since 2005, seven countries in West Africa have passed HIV laws. In
Benin, simply exposing others to HIV is a crime, even if transmission doesn't occur. And in Tanzania, intentional transmission of the virus can lead to life imprisonment.
Many of the laws in Africa were passed after a meeting in Chad in 2004 sponsored by the US Agency for International Development, the world's biggest funder of Aids programmes, and attended by UN officials.
"The UN was definitely remiss to allow this to happen," said Kevin Osborne, a senior HIV adviser at IPPF and one of the report's authors. De Lay said UNAids found out about the meeting only after it happened. But poor countries aren't the only ones using these laws. In the US, 32 states have laws criminalising HIV transmission.
Experts estimate that thousands of people have been charged across the
country with spreading HIV. Since 2001, 16 people in the United Kingdom have been prosecuted for spreading HIV.
Cases set poor example for others
In 2005, a woman in Canada was charged with criminal negligence and
aggravated assault for passing HIV while pregnant to her baby. She did not tell her doctors that she had HIV and did not receive the medications necessary to prevent the virus from infecting her child. She was sentenced to a six-month conditional sentence followed by three years of probation.
In countries like Britain, Canada and the US, which are major donors of efforts to fight Aids in Africa, such cases are particularly unfortunate, many experts say.
"It sets a poor example in the sense that other countries may then think this is an appropriate or desirable way to deal with HIV," said Richard Elliott, executive director of the Canadian HIV/Aids Legal Network. While there might be exceptional cases where prosecuting people who are maliciously spreading HIV makes sense, experts said those were extreme cases.
"The criminal law is a blunt instrument," Osborne said. "If you put
everyone in prison with HIV, then you think you've controlled it. But
you haven't dealt with the issues around the intimate behaviours that
spread HIV." – (Sapa, November 2008)
Worrying Aids trends in US