Living Positive Victoria welcomes top researchers statement to HIV transmission and the law

A new article published in the Medical Journal of Australia states that the Australian criminal justice system should exercise caution in prosecuting HIV transmission due to the rapidly evolving science of the virus.

The article titled Sexual transmission of HIV and the law: an Australian medical consensus, stands by strong evidence that shows the risk of HIV transmission during sex between partners can be low, negligible or too low to quantify depending on four factors: the serostatus of both partners even if the HIV-positive partner is not taking antiretroviral therapy;  the nature of the sexual act;  the viral load of the partner with HIV; and whether a condom or pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) is used to reduce risk. This news is applauded from the HIV community as another step towards reducing the detrimental effects of HIV related stigma.

“It’s incredible to see these experts come together and make a bold statement regarding HIV and the law,” said Richard Keane, President of Living Positive Victoria. “The impact of HIV criminalisation or even the threat of it is a dangerous form of stigma and we’re still feeling the ripple effect more than two decades later.”

There have been at least 38 Australian criminal prosecutions for HIV sexual transmission or exposure since 1991. This doesn’t include the number of people with HIV who have had criminal complaints made against them, often leading to police investigation.

“You don’t have to be convicted or even prosecuted for HIV criminalisation to affect you,” said Keane. “The HIV community lives with the threat that a complaint can be made against us and the stigma that criminal prosecutions amplify and perpetuate.”

The authors also call for the better use of the public health system as an alternative to criminal prosecution which includes prioritising education and supporting behaviour change. The hope is that this united statement will guide the courts, both prosecutors and defence, influence policy and eliminate overestimating risk in situations to rid of stigmatising legal sanctions against people living with HIV.

“Most people on treatment are able to achieve an ‘undetectable’ viral load which makes it highly likely that the person will remain healthy and pose a negligible risk of transmitting HIV,” Keane said. “The evidence outlined in this statement shows that the per-act risk of HIV transmission from even the most risky sex is still low. The message should be to encourage individuals to take care of their health and eliminate barriers to accessing treatment rather than intimidation through the justice system.”

Keane continues, “By focusing on what the studies and science is telling us about treatments, relative risk and harm, that’s how we reduce HIV transmission whilst protecting the rights and dignity of people living with HIV. HIV is a health issue, not a criminal justice issue.”