Ireland, UK, US: Spitting and biting cases highlight police ignorance

Whether its Fort Mill, South Carolina; Jacksonville, Florida; Rutland, Vermont; or Wimbledon in the UK, the police and media have been over-estimating the risk of HIV transmission from biting or spitting over the past two weeks with devastating consequences for all concerned.

South Carolina: Where biting is attempted murder
In Fort Mill, a man who bit his neighbour in a fight had his charges upgraded from simple assault to assault and battery with attempt to kill once police learned of the man’s HIV status, according to a report in The Herald.

Assault and battery with intent to kill is a felony that carries a prison sentence of up to 20 years upon conviction, Fort Mill Police Capt. Bryan Zachary said. “Upon review of the facts of the case,” Zachary said, the solicitor’s office “confirmed because of the malicious intent involved that the charge of assault and battery with intent to kill was warranted.

And yet, according to local TV station WSOC the bite did not break the skin.

London: Policeman’s unnecessary agony
There may be no attempted murder charges for biting under English law, but in Wimbledon, according to This is Local London, “a policeman bitten by an HIV-positive drug addict [during his arrest] faces an anxious wait to see whether he has contracted the virus.”

And during his wait he will, according to the report, “need at least seven months of anti-viral medication.” Yet Post Exposure Prophylaxis for HIV exposure lasts just 28 days and is not actually warranted for a bite.

Vermont: Where post-spit anxiety lasts a year
A policeman in Rutland faces totally unnecessary anxiety after being spit on by an HIV-positive man who had been trying to commit suicide.

The Times Argus reports:

A man diagnosed with the virus that causes AIDS is charged with a felony for spitting into the face of a Rutland police officer who must now undergo a year’s worth of testing to discover whether he was infected with HIV. […]

It was while doctors in the emergency room were treating [the man] that he allegedly cocked his head back and spit into the face, eyes and mouth of city police Sgt. David Schauwecker, who was trying to control [his] head, according to the affidavit. [The man], who was arrested more than a week later after his release from the hospital, has no prior criminal record.

But the charge he faces now is tantamount to a life-threatening assault, according to Rutland County Deputy State’s Attorney Kathryn Smith. “The nature of this offense is extremely concerning,” Smith said. “He knows he has a deadly disease and yet he exposed another human being to that disease. … This case before us is an actual act of violence.”

“Everything in my life is basically put on hold for a year,” said Schauwecker, who will be tested every three months to look for signs of HIV. “I went there that night trying to save someone and now I’m looking at a life sentence.”

Today, the Rutland Herald ran a letter from AIDS NGO, Vermont Cares, entitled ‘Clearing up HIV myths’. They wrote:

Enforcing the myth that HIV is spread through saliva… protects the health of no one. In fact, unfounded fears about HIV transmission and misunderstanding of risk can endanger people with HIV.

To be clear, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers no demonstrated cases of saliva ever transmitting HIV. Transmittable HIV is present in four bodily fluids only: blood, semen, vaginal fluids, and breast milk.

Having someone spit in your eye or mouth is definitely frightening and may transmit other pathogens from influenza to tuberculosis. However, HIV is a highly unlikely risk in this instance.

Enforcing fear and misinformation about HIV, and promoting the belief that HIV testing is a variable enough science to postpone relationships and life, would be a terrible consequence of this incident. HIV testing, by CDC recommendations, is nearly 100 percent accurate at six or even three months.

Florida: Where attempted spitting is now a felony
In late July, Jacksonville police charged a 29 year-old HIV-positive man with aggravated assault with intent to commit a felony after he attempted to spit on a police officer following his arrest for shoplifting.

The arresting officer said that on the drive to jail, [the man] started coughing and trying to spit on the officer from the back seat of the patrol car in an “effort to transmit his HIV disease.” The officer had to put a “spit mask” on [the man]’s face before taking him to jail.

The short piece on included the man’s name and photo. There are now seven pages of readers comments that range from the homo- and trans-phobic to pure HIV hatred. One reader even found and published the man’s previous (minor) criminal record. I genuinely fear for the man’s safety in- or out of jail.

Ireland: Judge concerned about police’s lack of education of HIV transmission risks of biting and spitting
The Irish Times reports that a High Court Judge, Ms Justice Mary Irvine, recently brought in a medical expert to testify over the risk faced by police of occupational exposure to HIV and other blood-borne diseases “as a result of the high number of Garda [Irish police] compensation claims involving fear of transmission of such diseases coming before the court.”

The judge awarded a policeman €8000 compensation after hearing testimony that “he had been “petrified” and suffered nightmares and sleeplessness after having been bitten during the arrest of a known drug user”.

Colm Bergin, a consultant in infectious diseases, told the court that in 10 years’ practice he had never come across a case of transmission of HIV or Hepatitis C through saliva.

The court also heard that:

  • the risk of contracting HIV or Hepatitis C from saliva can be as low as one in 100,000; and
  • that transmission of such diseases through contact with blood was also negligible.

[The judge] had expressed concern as to how well [police] were educated about risks to members contracting saliva and blood transmitted diseases through bites, spittle or needle stick injuries. “Such attacks are happening on a daily basis and there are huge numbers of compensation cases coming before the court,” the judge said. She has asked for reports on the risks involved and what is being done to reassure [police] injured in assaults as to the low level of risk.