A scandal: HIV in the Western World

The Western world’s treatment of many people with HIV is nothing short of barbaric. That was my conclusion after a day spent moderating at the UN Development Programme’s Regional Dialogue on HIV and the Law in Oakland, California. Having played a similar role in Bangkok in February for the UNDP’s Asia Pacific Dialogue, I reckoned I knew what to expect of the last stage of submissions on the Higher Income countries in North America and Western Europe. I was wrong. The distressing testimony I witnessed from people living in the world’s richest countries – the US, Canada, the UK, Denmark, Germany, and elsewhere in Europe – left me profoundly shocked…

The reason is simple – criminalization. Across the Western world, people with HIV live with the very real threat of prosecution if they have sex without revealing their positive status – even if they use a condom.  And so they should, you may well argue. But the facts are these: the latest HIV medications are so powerful that they slash the viral load to negligible levels. That’s why people with HIV  now live long and productive lives. And that’s also why HIV is increasingly being thought of as a manageable condition like diabetes.

What’s more, medical treatment doesn’t just stop the virus in its tracks, it also stops it being transmitted to others. In a recent editorial, the medical journal, The Lancet reported on a major international research study which demonstrated that ‘anti-retroviral treatment can prevent the sexual transmission of HIV.’   Denmark’s parliamentarians have looked at the latest science and decided to suspend their legislation criminalizing people with HIV who have sex without disclosing their status.

But in the US and Canada we’ve seen a surge in prosecutions against people with HIV even as huge medical advances continue to be made. In the overwhelming majority of cases the HIV virus was not transmitted, nor likely to be, yet prison sentences of up to thirty years have been handed out by the courts. A guilty verdict doesn’t just mean a criminal conviction, it also means landing up on the sex offenders’ register along side rapists and paedophiles. In some states of America you can kill someone in a car accident and get a lighter sentence than if you fail to pass on HIV to a sexual partner. Passing on herpes or hepatitis C isn’t prosecuted, but not passing on HIV is.

The injustice is staggering. Seldom in my many years as a BBC journalist, and now as an international moderator, have I felt so outraged. If you were at the Regional Dialogue for HIV and the Law in Oakland, what did you think of how the day unfolded?