Science against criminalisation

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26 Jul 2018

WEDNESDAY 25 JULY 2018

Twenty of the world’s leading HIV scientists have launched an evidence-based consensus that systematically refutes the rationale for laws that criminalise HIV transmission. The “Expert Consensus Statement on the Science of HIV in the Context of Criminal Lawand an accompanying editorial has been published in the Journal of the International AIDS Society (JIAS).

Concerned that HIV criminalisation laws are partly driven by a poor appreciation of the science around HIV, the panel of 20 global experts developed a Consensus Statement describing the best medical and scientific evidence around HIV transmission to inform the justice system.

According to the Expert Consensus Statement, at least 68 countries criminalise HIV non-disclosure, exposure or transmission. Another 33 countries are known to have applied other criminal law provisions in similar cases. People living with HIV continue to be accused, arrested, prosecuted and/or convicted for non-disclosure, possible or perceived exposure or transmission of HIV in cases where: no harm was intended; HIV transmission did not occur, was extremely unlikely or impossible; and transmission was neither alleged nor proven.

“Simply put, HIV criminalisation laws are ineffective, unwarranted and discriminatory,” Expert Consensus Statement co-author and IAS President Linda-Gail Bekker said. “In many cases, these misconceived laws exacerbate the spread of HIV by driving people living with and at risk of infection into hiding and away from treatment services.”

The 20 co-authors of the Expert Consensus Statement include Nobel Laureate Françoise Barré-Sinoussi of the Pasteur Institute, Salim Abdool Karim of Columbia University, Chris Beyrer of John Hopkins University, Pedro Cahn of Buenos Aires University, Peter Godfrey-Faussett of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Julio Montaner of the University of British Columbia and other leading global scientists with expertise in research, epidemiology and patient care. The Expert Consensus Statement has been endorsed by the International AIDS Society, International Association of Providers of AIDS Care, Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS and other organisations and scientists.

The statement stresses that:

  • There is no possibility of HIV transmission via contact with the saliva of an HIV-positive person, including through kissing, biting or spiting.
  • The risk of transmission from a single act of unprotected sex is very low, and there is no possibility of HIV transmission during vaginal or anal sex when the HIV-positive partner has an undetectable viral load.
  • It is not possible to establish proof of HIV transmission from one individual to another, even with the most advanced scientific tools.

Limited understanding of current HIV science reinforces stigma and can lead to miscarriages of justice while undermining efforts to address the HIV epidemic. In the accompanying editorial, JIAS Editor-in-Chief Kenneth Mayer and colleagues wrote: “Specific laws focusing on HIV criminalization, and misuse of other laws despite the evidence against the likelihood of HIV transmission, reflect the perpetuation of ignorance, irrational fear and stigmatisation.”

They continued, “We therefore hope that governmental authorities will view this Expert Consensus Statement as a resource to better understand the actual rather than the perceived risks posed by exposures to individuals living with HIV, and to create societies that encourage engagement and not fear.”

The Expert Consensus Statement — which has been translated into French, Russian and Spanish — encourages governments and legal and judicial systems to pay close attention to the significant advances in HIV science that have occurred. The statement serves as the gold standard of current scientific knowledge on HIV to inform any application of the criminal law in cases related to HIV.