Here’s a first…a well-written, concise and balanced article on the repercussions of criminalising reckless HIV transmission in England & Wales, from this week’s edition of The Economist.
HIV transmission: A modern bugbear
Apr 10th 2008
From The Economist print edition
AT FIRST blush the bigwigs at the Health Protection Agency, which monitors diseases, could have told a rosier story. On March 28th they reported that sexual-health clinics diagnosed 8% fewer HIV infections last year than in 2006. But Britain’s epidemic is not fading, they insisted. New infections among gay men and straight people are close to all-time highs; falling infections among heterosexuals who caught the virus in Africa account for almost all of the decline (see chart).
There are more ominous trends than these. Britons’ understanding of the risks has gradually worsened over the past decade or so. In January a poll by Ipsos MORI found that more than two out of five Londoners do not know that sex between men carries a chance of transmitting HIV. Lately, says Yusef Azad of the National AIDS Trust, a charity, the proportion of gay men having unprotected sex who give blood for a syphilis test but refuse to do so for a HIV test has gone up.
Is this complacency or dread? Mr Azad worries that some gay men may shirk free HIV checks because they fear a positive result could incriminate them in future. Since 2001, 13 people in Britain have been convicted of reckless grievous bodily harm (reckless injury in Scotland) for spreading HIV to their partners. Because recklessness involves taking a known risk, eschewing knowledge of the danger probably averts a court case.
Doctors and campaigning groups such as the National AIDS Trust say that the legal system creates muddled disincentives for public health. One man without a biochemical diagnosis of his status has been convicted after he ignored advice from a clinician and his South African wife that he should get one. But because a court in Liverpool also found him guilty of bigamy and fraud, with all the charges bundled together, his case provides an iffy precedent, if one at all.
The World Health Organisation has branded British police tactics “objectionable” and bemoaned the courts’ feeble understanding of virology. Until 2006 prosecutors bedazzled defendants into pleading guilty by waving lab reports of the genetic similarities between the virus in their blood and in their accuser’s. Yet such data cannot rule out other possibilities, for example that the accuser really infected the accused or a third party infected both. Sarah Porter, one “AIDS assassin”, as the tabloid press often brands those found guilty, may have been wrongly convicted, reckons Matthew Weait, a law lecturer who has written a book on the criminalisation of HIV transmission.
Chaos might be expected given that the law employed in such cases was written before doctors fully grasped that germs caused contagious diseases. It is also why the Crown Prosecution Service recently provided formal guidance. A policy statement published on March 14th makes clear that genetic data will always form part but never the entirety of case evidence. Moot points remain, such as whether someone who does not tell a partner about having HIV and transmits the virus when a condom splits is reckless.
Using the law to punish reckless disease-transmission runs the danger of doing more harm than good. Tellingly, HIV is the only bug ever to have prompted a criminal conviction in England and Wales. And the sentences so far meted out have been more than twice as long as those for the violent whacking and clobbering involved in other grievous-bodily-harm crimes. Yet living with HIV in Britain is less dangerous than living with hepatitis C, another sexually transmitted virus.
Copyright © 2008 The Economist Newspaper and The Economist Group. All rights reserved.