When law and science part ways: the criminalization of breastfeeding by women living with HIV

The HIV Justice Network (HJN) has been monitoring a disturbing phenomenon — at least 12 women living with HIV have faced criminal prosecution in relation to breastfeeding or comfort nursing.  

In addition, women living with HIV have been threatened with punitive public health processes and child protection interventions for breastfeeding their children in multiple countries.

To bring this important issue to the attention of women’s health experts and advocates, HJN worked with our HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE partners to write a paper for a Special Collection on Women’s Health and HIV for the peer-reviewed, open access journal Therapeutic Advances in Infectious Diseases.     

In “When law and science part ways: the criminalization of breastfeeding by women living with HIV,” published last week, Alison Symington (HJN’s Senior Policy Analyst), Nyasha Chingore-Munazvo (Programmes Lead, AIDS and Rights Alliance of Southern Africa) and Svitlana Moroz (Chair of the Eurasian Women’s Network on AIDS) place the criminalisation of women with HIV for breastfeeding within the context of current medical recommendations and cultural views of breastfeeding. They review the criminal cases against women living with HIV for breastfeeding around the globe, examine the injustice of these prosecutions, and provide recommendations for decriminalisation.

This Special Collection includes papers addressing a wide range of health issues impacting women with HIV. According to lead author Alison Symington, “We felt it was important to submit a paper on breastfeeding and HIV criminalisation because so few people are aware of these horrible cases. Healthcare providers have an important role to play in protecting women from punitive actions and providing them with information and support so that they can make the best decisions for themselves and their children.”

To make the paper even more widely accessible, HJN has provided translations into French, Russian and Spanish.

It is HJN’s aim to collaborate with advocates, researchers, service providers, organisations and community members around the world to raise awareness and prevent further unjust prosecutions against women living with HIV who breastfeed or comfort nurse. We are therefore grateful to both the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation and the Robert Carr Fund for their financial support for this work.

Further resources

Mwayi’s Story is a short film about courage, and about women standing up for their rights. The film is based on a real case in Malawi and the subsequent successful advocacy to prevent an HIV criminalisation statute being passed. The full story of the woman who was prosecuted for briefly breastfeeding another woman’s baby is told in an HJN feature, It Takes More Than A Village to End HIV Criminalisation, by Sally Cameron, based on a report by Peter Gwazayani, Edna Tembo and Charity Mkona.

 

 

Mwayi’s Story: a short film about courage,
women’s rights, and HIV justice

Today we are delighted to share with the world a new short film, Mwayi’s Story, produced by the HIV Justice Network on behalf of HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE.

Mwayi’s Story is a story about courage, and about women standing up for their rights. The film is based on the story of a woman in Malawi who was prosecuted for briefly breastfeeding another woman’s baby and the subsequent successful advocacy in Malawi to prevent an HIV criminalisation statute being passed.

Ultimately, Mwayi’s Story is about HIV justice!

We wanted to produce a film that was authentic to the lived experience of an HIV criminalisation survivor but without making her go through the trauma of having to relive the experience by telling her story again.

HJN’s video, visuals and webshows consultant, Nicholas Feustel, who produced and directed the film, said: “Since this story is primarily about mothers and children, we decided to produce the film in the style of an illustrated children’s storybook. We searched for a female illustrator working in sub-Saharan Africa and found the wonderful Phathu Nembilwi of Phathu Designs.

“For our narrator, we found Upile Chisala, a storyteller from Malawi known for her short and powerful poems.”

The script by HJN’s Senior Policy Analyst, Alison Symington, was written in consultation with our Supervisory Board member, Sarai Chisala-Tempelhoff, a Malawian human rights lawyer and legal researcher with over 15 years of experience in women’s access to justice.

We also worked with our HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE partners, Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC) and AIDS and Rights Alliance for Southern Africa (ARASA), to ensure that the film was relevant to their ongoing advocacy in the region. In fact, Mwayi’s Story had its world premiere last week on Zambia’s Diamond TV, in anticipation of a verdict in a similar breastfeeding case.

The film will be shown in a number of forums over the next few months, including at AIDS 2022. It will soon be subtitled in French, Russian and Spanish, and we are also looking for partners to translate additional subtitles if they think the film can be useful in their own advocacy. If you’re interested you can get in touch with us at breastfeeding@hivjustice.net. We will send you the English subtitle file for translation. After you return the file to us, we will upload it to YouTube.

Mwayi’s Story is part of our ongoing work to end the criminalisation of women living with HIV for breastfeeding and comfort nursing, including our Breastfeeding Defence Toolkit. It is our goal to collaborate with advocates, researchers, service providers, organisations and community members around the world to raise awareness and prevent further unjust prosecutions against women living with HIV who breastfeed or comfort nurse. We are grateful to both the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation and the Robert Carr Fund for their financial support for this work, and this film.

New Breastfeeding Defence Toolkit
launched at Beyond Blame 2021

Criminal prosecutions related to presumed HIV exposure via breastfeeding are all-too-often driven by stigma, misinformation, and the desire to protect a child from exaggerated risk.  People living with HIV require a vigorous defence based on principles of justice and human rights, good public policy, and accurate science.

Which is why this week we have launched the Breastfeeding Defence Toolkit as a new section of our HIV Justice Tookit.

The Breastfeeding Defence Toolkit provides materials to support lawyers and advocates supporting people living with HIV who face criminal charges or other punitive measures for breastfeeding, chestfeeding, or comfort nursing.

Although the Breastfeeding Defence Toolkit is currently only available in English, we are working on French, Russian and Spanish versions.  In addition, new resources will be added to the Toolkit as they become available.

The Breastfeeding Defence Toolkit was launched at Beyond Blame: Challenging Criminalisation for HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE on Tuesday 30 November 2021.  Watch the 10 minute segment below.

Background

In 1986, it was discovered that HIV could be transmitted from a woman to a child through 
breastfeeding. Since this time, women living with HIV have borne the weight of the 
responsibility of preventing HIV transmission to their offspring. This responsibility has been 
used to justify surveillance, judgement, and limitations on autonomy and decision-making for 
women living with HIV.

Some women living with HIV have faced criminal prosecution for exposing fetuses and/or 
infants to a risk of HIV infection, especially through breastfeeding. These numbers may be small 
compared to the number who have faced criminal charges with respect to HIV non-disclosure, 
exposure and transmission in sexual contexts, but cases are increasing.

The HIV Justice Network 
is aware of at least 13 such cases in the past decade, with a growing number of criminal prosecutions taking place 
across the African continent as well as in Russia since 2018. We are also aware of several cases 
that took place in North America and Europe between 2005 – 2012.

These cases include charges laid against mothers, community members and domestic 
employees. Various criminal charges have been used in these cases, including failure to provide 
the necessaries of life, grievous bodily harm, unlawfully doing an act likely to spread a 
dangerous disease, and deliberately infecting another with HIV.

In addition to these criminal 
cases, many more women have experienced punitive responses from service providers, public 
health, and child welfare authorities.

Criminal prosecutions and other punitive responses to breastfeeding by women living with HIV 
pose significant harms to both the accused and the child. HIV criminalisation threatens the 
health and well-being of people living with HIV and jeopardises the goals of ending HIV 
discrimination and, ultimately, the epidemic. Not only do punitive laws targeting people living with HIV lack a scientific evidence base they also serve as barriers to HIV prevention, treatment, 
and care, and perpetuate stigma.

Infant feeding choices should not be a criminal issue. Parents should be provided with full 
information to make the best choices for their families and infant feeding should be managed 
through clinical support. Science supports that the best outcomes for a mother and a child 
result from proper medical care, access to treatment and openness. Criminalising maternal and 
child health issues generally risks worse outcomes for the infant.

[Feature] It Takes More Than A Village to End HIV Criminalisation

The proverb says, “It takes a village to raise a child”. But what if a mother in the village is living with HIV, and some of the villagers stigmatise her? What if that stigma creates a situation where the mother living with HIV is unjustly criminalised because of her HIV status? Then it takes more than a village to get justice for that woman. It takes a global movement to end HIV criminalisation to sensitise and train lawyers and expert witnesses.  It takes national communities of women living with HIV to support that woman following her release, and to educate the community in which she lives about HIV.

Introduction

In 2016, a Malawi court convicted a woman living with HIV of “negligently and recklessly doing an act likely to spread the infection of any disease which is dangerous to life” under section 192 of the Malawi Penal Code. She had attended a village meeting with her baby which she breastfed as usual before passing the child to her grandmother. Another woman then asked her to hold her baby. It was alleged that this child began breastfeeding briefly before the woman realised what was happening. The child’s mother then reported the incident to the police. The woman was arrested and without legal advice or representation, pleaded guilty, was convicted, and sentenced to nine months’ imprisonment with hard labour.

The circumstances of the case are all the more shocking because women living with HIV are encouraged to breastfeed in Malawi (and in other countries with high HIV prevalence and settings in which diarrhoea, pneumonia and undernutrition are common causes of infant and child deaths) and because HIV-related prosecutions involving breastfeeding are exceedingly rare. Unfortunately, we have seen an increase in the number of such cases since 2016. HJN is working to address this in a number of ways because we believe there should never be prosecutions of women living with HIV for breastfeeding.

In addition, the accused woman was taking antiretroviral therapy. The chances of HIV transmission through even long-term breastfeeding are very low (which is why WHO guidelines recommend it when access to infant formula and clean water are limited) and the chances of transmission during the brief period the baby allegedly fed were infinitesimally small. In fact, the accused woman’s own child, who was routinely breastfed, has not acquired HIV, calling into question any suggestion that she intended to cause harm to the other woman’s child. Perversely, for a system that unjustly condemned her for risking harm to the other woman’s child, her own baby was imprisoned with her, without any arrangements for appropriate feeding and care, negating any notion that the legal system’s purpose was to protect children.

Following media reports of her initial conviction, numerous individuals and organisations – including HJN and our HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE partners, ARASA and SALC – became involved in the case, ultimately changing the outcome for the woman and her family, and laying the groundwork for further anti-HIV stigma advocacy and education in the region. Her story demonstrates the vital role that education, training, strong networks, and community play in the pursuit of HIV justice.

Living with HIV-related stigma

When interviewed at her home in 2019, the woman referred to as “EL” talked about her life:[1]

[1] The initials EL are used instead of her full name following a court order of anonymity to protect her privacy. The interview took place in 2019, during the village visit described later in this article.

“As kids, there were the two of us — me and my brother. My parents faced challenges raising us. Finding the basic necessities like soap and food was a tall order, let alone talking about going to school. It was difficult to get learning materials as well as proper clothes to wear at school. I worked hard in class but couldn’t get past Standard 5 at primary school. Eventually I dropped out, and my brother did the same, … My daily life was taken up doing house chores just like any other girl in the village, as well as helping my parents with farming. At 16, I got married.”

EL further described how she was diagnosed HIV-positive in 2015 after a de facto compulsory HIV test at an antenatal visit. She already had two children and was pregnant with her third. She had heard about HIV but did not know much about it. EL said that the healthcare workers provided a lot of assistance, giving her accurate information about HIV, including the importance of adhering to her antiretroviral treatment (ARVs).

EL and two of her children. Photo: Amos Gumulira/UNDP Malawi

EL said that she generally enjoyed life in her village, although at times she was subject to stigma and discrimination:

“When I went to fetch water at the community borehole, people would laugh at me, and whenever I wanted to participate in community work, you would find pockets of community members talking ill about me. Some people used to insult me, calling me names. But I persevered because my relatives, including the Village Headman himself, gave me support and always stood by my side.”

Members of EL’s family also faced discrimination. “Due to lack of information, a lot of people thought HIV was hereditary and because I was diagnosed HIV-positive, this meant that all my family members had HIV, and they were discriminated against,” EL said.

EL wonders if more could have been done to help her fight stigma. In particular, EL gained a lot of knowledge about HIV from the counselling she got when diagnosed, but perhaps she could have been better equipped with information to share with people in her community:

“A lot of people don’t know that if you adhere to ARVs, you reduce the risk of transmitting HIV to others. This information needs to be passed on to many people. There are also other issues to do with ARVs. A lot of people don’t have adequate information on the effects of ARVs and at the end of the day, they start pointing fingers at each other, giving people room to start speculating about issues to do with witchcraft.”

EL’s prosecution had repercussions for her whole village. One woman from the community explained:

“I was there and very close to where EL was sitting. Yes, she was carrying another woman’s child. This other woman had given the child to EL for safe keeping while she went to stand in a queue, but honestly speaking, I didn’t see EL breastfeed the child. I just heard some people who were sitting a distance from where we were sitting, as they started pointing accusing fingers at her.”

She said that things moved so fast that before they could think of anything to stop what she called “the rumour.” It had gotten out of hand and people started saying that EL had intentionally breastfed the child to transmit HIV.

After receiving a summons, EL voluntarily turned herself in at the police station. She was accompanied by the Village Headman (her grandfather) who wanted first-hand information about what crime she was alleged to have committed. That same day, police transferred EL to a larger town, where she was remanded for three days. At the age of 29, this was the first time that EL had ever left her village.

Days later, she appeared in court and the charge sheet was read out. EL recounted that she had not understood what was happening and could not make arguments because she had no legal representation. EL agreed with the summary of events as they were described, so she was found guilty and was imprisoned together with her youngest child.

She described life in prison as “hell”:

“After a week, my brother showed up to give me my ARVs. All this talk about a woman with HIV breastfeeding. I breastfed but I also found it tough to feed my baby while in prison because there was no provision of special food for babies. We were eating nandolo (pigeon peas) almost every day with Msima ya Mgaiwa (maize meal). And there was only one toilet for a cell of more than 50 people.”

After some time, relatives and other members of her community started visiting, giving her money she could use to buy soap and food for her baby. “When we heard from our Village Headman that she had been arrested, we were so devastated”, a woman from EL’s village explained. “We raised funds for some members to go and give her support only to learn that she had been transferred to one town, then another, but some of us did manage on several occasions to visit her and offer our support when she was in prison.”

Then, out of the blue, EL received a message that some people had come looking for her. She went to meet them: a lawyer, Wesley Mwafulirwa, and his paralegal. They explained why they were there and asked if she would like them to appeal on her behalf. She accepted enthusiastically. “I was excited but at the same time I was confused because I could not believe that I could be so lucky to have these people come to help me.”

Fighting the charges

Solicitor Wesley Mwafulirwa had volunteered to attend training to address legal barriers to prison health and human rights presented by the Southern African Litigation Centre (SALC). He travelled from Malawi to South Africa to attend the training which addressed useful regional and international mechanisms, and presented insights about legal practice and strategic litigation to support prison health and human rights, particularly for those facing heightened vulnerability to HIV and TB.

Wesley Mwafulirwa Photo: Amos Gumulira/UNDP Malawi

At the training, two lawyers spoke about their pro bono work. Wesley remembers one of them, Allan Maleche (Executive Director of KELIN), saying that each participant should take at least one case when they go back to their country. It was a turning point in Wesley’s career.

He had not been home long when he saw an article in the newspaper about an HIV-positive person convicted for trying to spread HIV. That person was EL.

Wesley, who lives in a small town in northern Malawi, drove for more than ten hours to get to the jail where EL was incarcerated. He explained his determination, saying “I was so fired up! I’d just come from SALC’s training … and I said, ‘I want to take up this case’.”

Wesley interviewed EL and offered to take her case pro bono. Wesley contacted SALC, who offered technical support. Their first step was to get an order for anonymity to protect EL’s identity and gain greater control over media reporting. Next, they faced an ethical question. They wanted to challenge the constitutionality of the law but that would take a long time. Because EL was in prison, they decided to undertake a criminal appeal instead. They applied for EL to be let out of custody on bail pending appeal. This is usually a difficult application to win, but they were successful and EL was released from prison.

In the appeal, the court was asked to consider whether the conviction could be justified, whether the penal provision was constitutional (arguing it was overly broad and vague), and whether the sentence was manifestly unjust. Wesley used his learnings from the SALC training to raise international principles and instruments relating to sentencing, which the court referenced and upheld. Michaela Clayton, then Executive Director of the AIDS and Rights Alliance for southern Africa (ARASA), and now a member of HJN’s Supervisory Board, provided expert testimony. Another expert witness, Dr Ruth Brand, identified through HJN’s global network, gave expert scientific evidence to show the risk of HIV transmission had been “infinitesimally small.”

The case was heard by Honourable Justice Zione Ntaba, who held that the proceedings in the trial court were irregular and “blatantly bias” against EL, compromising her right to a fair trial. Justice Ntaba found the charge sheet had been defective and therefore EL’s plea should not have been recorded as guilty. She noted the law must be sensitive to the accused’s knowledge or belief (or lack of) that HIV would be transmitted. Justice Ntaba decided the conviction could not be justified, acknowledging human rights principles against the overly broad criminalisation of HIV non-disclosure, exposure, or transmission. EL’s sentence was set aside. (The Constitutional challenge was referred to a full-member panel of the Constitutional Court although the case was not pursued.)

Notably, Justice Ntaba was a member of the African Regional Judges Forum to discuss HIV, TB and Human Rights (a process which is owned and planned by the judges and run with support from UNDP and funding from the Global Fund).

Fighting the stigma

Shortly after EL’s arrest, the Coalition of Women and Girls Living with HIV and AIDS in Malawi (COWLHA) and the Malawi branch of the International Community of Women Living with HIV/AIDS (ICW-Malawi) discussed the case at a roundtable meeting. At first, everyone was surprised and even laughed, questioning how she could have breastfed someone else’s child. They had never heard of a criminal case involving infant feeding and did not understand what they were dealing with.

During their discussions, COWLHA and ICW-Malawi agreed that the prosecution of EL was a manifestation of stigma and misinformation about HIV in the community. They learned more about the unjust measures that EL had experienced, like being imprisoned without being given a chance to be heard and not being given the chance to prepare and take her medication and things she needed to care for her child. COWLHA and ICW decided to get involved.

Representatives from COWLHA and ICW meet with members of EL’s village. Photo: COWLHA/ICW

Concerned that EL could face social and community hostility after her release, COWHLA and ICW planned a visit to the village to provide psychosocial support to EL and to work with traditional community leaders to provide community sensitisation on HIV, addressing issues of stigma and discrimination. Their efforts helped change some community members’ ideas about HIV.

The community formed two support groups— one for youth and another for adults (notably both were predominantly female groups). They have conducted numerous activities, including home visits, supporting children to go to school, helping the elderly with house chores, and they have a garden where they grow vegetables and rice. They hoped to access loans to become self-reliant. They also had a list of issues they wanted to learn more about, including preventing mother-to-child transmission, sexual and reproductive health, positive living, stigma and discrimination, and treatment literacy.

Visiting EL at home

In September 2019, a three-member team comprising Edna Tembo (Executive Director of COWLHA), Charity Mkona (ICW Board Chair), and Peter Gwazayani (media consultant), set out for EL’s village.

The team was welcomed by the Group Village Headman, who took them to EL’s house. EL recognised Edna from the work COWLHA and ICW-Malawi had done in the community previously. EL welcomed the team with a big smile.

EL and her husband looked cheerful as they laid a mat on the veranda of their house for the visitors. Her mother later joined the discussion.

EL was interested to learn that HJN wanted to write about her case and the type of interventions that had been helpful, to share the story with advocates for HIV justice around the world.

EL recounted that when she returned to the village, “most members of my community received me with happiness, particularly my relatives. The day I arrived, they were jubilant. They celebrated with songs that we normally sing during special occasions in the village.”

COWLHA ED Edna Tembo and Charity Mkona of ICW chat with EL, her husband and her mother (at far distance). Photo: COWLHA/ICW

EL lives with her husband, five children and her mother in a compound made up of three grass thatched houses. She introduced her children:

“The oldest is 13 and she goes to school, as do the second and third. The fourth, a little girl, is the child I was with in prison. She has not yet started school. And then there is this one, who I am breastfeeding. She is the fifth one. She has been tested for HIV on two occasions and will be going for the last test soon. The other two tests have come back HIV-negative.”

EL’s accuser and her family still lives in the same village which has presented some difficulties. EL said that on several occasions she had tried to greet them when they passed each other, but she had been ignored. “They don’t talk to me but from deep down in my heart, I have no grudges against them,” EL said.  “I am just living my normal life,” EL says, although now she says that she would never agree to carry anybody else’s child, for any reason.

Moving beyond criminalisation

With respect to the community-level interventions, lawyer Annabel Raw, who worked at SALC during the time they supported the EL case said:

“As lawyers, we would never have thought to consider such an intervention had ICW-Malawi and COWLHA not shared their insights and been willing to support the client and her community. Their work has been so important to ensuring that meaningful justice was done to combat the actual root cause of the prosecution — stigma and discrimination — and to reconcile EL with her community.”

Engaging with the community also influenced ICW-Malawi and COWLHA’s thinking about HIV criminalisation. COWLHA’s Edna Tembo noted that:

Supporting people who have been prosecuted, particularly women, gives them power, … However, it is very important to stress that psychological support is absolutely vital for those who have been prosecuted. That includes family support, and a supportive community environment enabling acceptance of an individual accused.”

Tembo was also quick to emphasise that there is more work to be done. That work includes awareness raising and ongoing support to the community, especially to identify and train volunteers, empowering them to provide services at community level and to link them to health facilities and district offices for continued support and mentorship.

EL carries her youngest child home. Photo: Amos Gumulira/UNDP Malawi

EL described her dreams for the future:

“My wish now is to see my children progress in school so that they become productive citizens in this community and help it grow. That’s my dream. If they get educated, they will be able to stand on their own and support others. My husband is not employed and it is a challenge to get money for school fees for our children. We would love to get a loan or training to have greater knowledge of economic empowerment because we want to be self-reliant. We would then love to lease some land to grow rice to sell to pay back the loan.

“It’s also my wish to see the lives of all people in the community uplifted. We farm but on a small-scale. If we were to be supported with funds, I’d love to see the community establish big rice farms, working in groups, harvesting for consumption and for sale. In so doing, we would be able to uplift our lives for the better.”

Further Information

Learn more about Wesley’s experiences in EL’s case here and here.

Learn more about the African Regional Judges Forum here.

The full High Court judgement is available here, with a summary included here.

Read more about the successful HIV and AIDS Management Act community advocacy here.


This article is based on information provided by ICW-Malawi and COWLHA following their visits to EL’s village, and an interview with Wesley Mwafulirwa published by UNDP. HJN provided financial and logistical support for the village visits thanks to a grant provided to the HIV Justice Global Consortium from the Robert Carr Fund for civil society networks.     

Australia: New South Wales mandatory testing bill is unnecessary and could be counterproductive

Mandatory disease testing bill ‘could put officers at risk’

NSW Health says a proposed law enabling authorities to force people to undergo testing for bloodborne diseases could actually put frontline workers at greater risk.

The department’s evidence to a parliamentary committee came as a senior NSW police official said it’s “not unusual” for officers to get pelted with faeces mixed with blood.

Getting bitten, spat on, or splashed with blood are some of the unfortunate realities faced on the job by emergency and prison workers, and come with the additional fear of getting infected with bloodborne diseases.

But the risk of infection from such incidents is very low, and drawing blood samples from people against their will could make them less likely to trust health workers to perform voluntary tests, a top NSW Health official said.

Such an increase in mistrust could make it harder for health workers to combat the spread of the diseases, including among prisoners where the prevalence of hepatitis C is up to 20 per cent higher than in the general community, the committee heard.

“The importance of reducing any stigma and discrimination, and improving the quality and accuracy of information about bloodborne viruses is paramount to engaging people in treatment,” said Michelle Cretikos, executive director with NSW Health‘s population and public health division.

“If people are discouraged from accessing treatment, then in fact the risk may increase, both to the people in the community as well as the workers that are looking after them.

“It‘s likely to reduce people’s trust in the health services … and may reduce access to treatment and access to care.”

Since 1994, there have been zero cases of NSW healthcare workers getting infected with HIV after an exposure in the workplace, Dr Cretikos said, pointing to an NSW Health policy directive.

That same directive included a survey of international studies, including an Australian one, all of which failed to turn up a single case of HIV transmission to healthcare workers after exposure to the virus.

“There have been zero, zero, zero, zero, zero, zero cases in all of those studies … And that’s correct over many years, across many countries,” Dr Cretikos said.

Even when the exposure was in the form of a needle puncture, the transmission risk was calculated at 0.3 per cent.

One Brazilian study conducted between 1997 and 2009 that looked at 80 cases of healthcare workers getting exposed to HIV via needle prick injuries found that none of the workers were infected.

For hepatitis C exposure, the rate of transmission was slightly higher, with a range of nine international studies showing a rate between zero and 2.3 per cent.

That included an Australian study which showed no instances of transmission among 64 incidents of puncture injuries caused by large needles.

A top corrective services official said similar data was difficult to collect for prison staff, because workers were not mandated to let their employers know whether they had a disease or not.

But the fact that there is a risk means there is a need for greater protection, said Gayle Robson, chief of staff to the commissioner of Corrective Services NSW.

“It is (…) sufficient, there is simply a risk of our staff contracting bloodborne viruses,” Ms Robson said.

There was no risk of bloodborne virus infection from many other body fluids such as urine, spit or faeces, or when the skin wasn’t breached, the NSW Health document said.

NSW police deputy commissioner for corporate services Malcolm Lanyon told the committee that out of some 2,500 assaults on police last financial year, 490 involved exposure to bodily fluids, including 69 bites and 29 needlestick injuries.

He said being able to force people to undergo disease testing would significantly reduce the anxiety officers feel when they’ve been exposed to bodily fluids.

“Waiting periods associated with self-testing of the police officer can lead to months of uncertainty, which can be enormously stressful and have lasting psychological impacts on officers and their family,” Commissioner Lanyon said.

And while non-blood body fluids might not pose a disease risk on their own, officers were often exposed to a mix of substances that included blood, he said.

“There are a number of disgusting and degrading acts that happen often when someone is in custody in a cell … It’s not unusual for them to deliberately defecate in there, it’s not unusual for people to then self-harm in that cell, get blood mixed with faeces, and throw that at police officers. That’s not an unusual scenario in custody.”

Corrective Services director Craig Smith similarly said that corrective officers suffer a blow to their mental health when faced with uncertainty over whether they could have been infected.

“I’ve seen grown men cry,” Mr Smith said.

“I agree that the risks are low, (but) it‘s that ‘maybe’.”

UK: Police Federation working with the National AIDS Trust to tackle HIV stigma and misinformation

Busting the myths around HIV

The Federation is working with the National AIDS Trust to tackle the stigma of HIV and provide reassurance for colleagues around its transmission.

Over the decades, many officers have been spat at or bitten by individuals who ‘weaponise’ the virus by claiming to be infected. But the chances of acquiring HIV through spit or a bite are close to zero, and no police officer has ever acquired it in this way.

There are only three ways a person can be infected – needle sharing, sexual intercourse and breastfeeding.

PFEW National Board member Simon Kempton, who has led on the issue of communicable diseases, said: “The act of spitting at a police officer is vile, is disgusting and particularly during a global pandemic carries risks of transmitting other diseases. But we know from decades of research that it’s impossible to transmit HIV by that method, and people who threaten us with that only increase that feeling of fear and stigma.

“The Federation is keen to help colleagues understand the true risks of transmission, to help them deal with the fear factor that’s been built in unnecessarily. Knowledge IS power and helping officers to understand how negligible the risks are is important to their mental health after being assaulted.”

HIV if left untreated, attacks the immune system. However, if caught early and treated, it will not lead to AIDS which is the advanced stage. AIDS is now very uncommon in the UK thanks to effective treatment and people living with HIV can live full and productive lives with normal life expectancy.

Since HIV is now classed as a disability and a protected characteristic, it is not appropriate to record HIV status as a warning marker on police databases, except in situations like Custody where treatments might need to be administered.

DC Tracy O’Hara QPM of Merseyside Police explained: “These markers should only be on a custody record health assessment and even then, only available to those who need to know this information. So, if someone says, ‘I live with this condition and I need my medicine’ that should be on the record, but HIV status is not something the police service should be disclosing nor holding as warning markers or flags.

“It is important to note that we have colleagues living with HIV. How must they feel when we add to stigma or we store this information in such a negative way? They are never going to feel comfortable sharing their status to ensure their health is looked after. So this is not simply about our communities it is about our colleagues as well.”

More information is available at www.nat.org.uk

Look out for World AIDS Day on 1 December. This is an opportunity to show support for people living with HIV, and to remember those lost to the virus.

Watch all the videos of Beyond Blame @HIV2020 – our “perfectly executed…deftly curated, deeply informative” webshow

Earlier this month, advocates from all over the world came together for two hours to discuss the successes and challenges of the global movement to end HIV criminalisation.

All of the recordings of Beyond Blame: Challenging HIV Criminalisation for HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE are now available on the HIV Justice Network’s YouTube Channel.

“HUGE pleasure 2B at #BeyondBlame2020 conference – deftly curated, deeply informative; speakers were great; the passion & commitment to #HIVjustice was palpable. Much progress yet a sober reminder that the work is far from over.”

Kene Esom, Policy Specialist: Human Rights, Law and Gender, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)

 

The full-length director’s cut version – with enhanced audio and video – is now available in English as well as with the audio track of the recorded simultaneous translation in French, Spanish, Russian, and Portuguese.

The English version is also available as a YouTube playlist in ‘bite-size’ chunks, with each segment of the webshow available as standalone videos.  This means, for example, if you just want to watch (or share) the segment on ‘women challenging HIV criminalisation in Africa‘, or on ‘bringing science to justice, and justice to science‘, it’s now possible.

“That webinar was perfectly executed. Great sound, engaging transitions (they actually played people on and off!), and multiple speakers in various collections. Having ALL OF THEM back at the end showed the breadth of this technical accomplishment and the depth of the speakers’ field of expertise. Not everyone may notice these things but boy, I sure do, and it was totally pro. I’ve seen big name conferences who couldn’t get this right… Congratulations all around, and especially to [director] Nicholas Feustel.

Mark S King, My Fabulous Disease

 

We have also made available for the first time the standalone recording of Edwin Cameron’s closing speech, which inspired so many.  The transcript is included in full below.

“We have been being battling this fight for many years. Since the start of the HIV epidemic we as gay men, as gay women, as queers, as transgender people, as sex workers, as people using drugs, have been persecuted by the criminal law. And I’m here to say, “Enough! Enough!

We have achieved a great deal with our movement, with the HIV Justice Network. We have achieved a great deal in conscientizing law makers, law givers and the public. It is now time for us to join in unison to demand the end of these stigmatising, retrograde, unproductive, hurtful, harmful laws.

It is a long struggle we’ve engaged in. And it’s one that has hurt many of us. Some of us here today, some of us listening in, some of us who have spoken, have felt the most brutal brush of the law. They have been imprisoned, unjustly prosecuted, unjustly convicted, and unjustly sent away.

HIV is not a crime. But there is more to it. Criminalising HIV, criminalising the transmission or exposure of HIV, as many countries on my own beautiful continent Africa do, is not just stupid and retrograde. It impedes the most important message of the HIV epidemic now, which is that this epidemic is manageable. I’ve been on antiretroviral treatment now for very nearly 23 years. My viral load has been undetectable for more than 20.

We can beat this, but we have to approach this issue as public health issue. We have to approach it rationally and sensibly, and without stigma, and without targeting people, and without seeking to hurt and marginalise people.We’ve made calamitous mistakes with the misapplication of the criminal law over the last hundred years, in the so-called ‘war on drugs’. We continue to make a calamitous mistake in Africa and elsewhere by misusing the criminal law against queer people like myself. We make a huge mistake by misusing the criminal law against people with HIV.

Let us rise today and say, “Enough!”

 

Australia: Proposed mandatory HIV testing in New South Wales is neither necessary nor useful

HIV testing people who spit at police or health workers won’t actually protect them

People who expose a police officer or emergency worker to body fluids would be compelled to have their blood tested for HIV, hepatitis B and hepatitis C, under a proposed law in NSW.

But this law isn’t needed to protect first responders. We already have evidence-based protocols that are working well to protect them from blood-borne infections.

Rather, the proposed law is a political reaction to a problem that doesn’t need fixing. It is also not supported by scientific evidence or Australian government policy on HIV testing.

What is NSW proposing?

In November last year, the NSW government proposed legislation which gives authorities the power to test a person for HIV, hepatitis B or hepatitis C if they have deliberately exposed a front-line worker to their body fluids (saliva or blood).

Examples might be if a person bites a police officer restraining them during an arrest or protest; someone biting or scratching a youth justice or corrections officer; or a person behaving unpredictably, exposing ambulance officers to their body fluids.

The mandatory testing order would come from senior officers within the worker’s own agency. If the person does not comply, they can be forced to do so. They have 48 hours to appeal to the NSW chief health officer. Anyone who refuses a mandatory testing order will be committing an offence, with a maximum 12 months prison term or an A$11,000 fine, or both.

Is this happening elsewhere?

Five states have legislation that allows mandatory testing, according to a report by the National Association of People Living with HIV.

The proposed NSW model is closest to the one Western Australiaintroduced in 2014, where police can order testing. This resulted in 377 testing orders in the first four years.

In contrast, in Victoria the chief health officer has the power to order a test or issue a public health order to enforce it if necessary. In those same four years, not a single person was ordered to be tested.

What’s the risk of transmission anyway?

Outside of sexual transmission, HIV is transmitted through blood. Police and corrections officers are far less likely to be exposed to a blood-borne virus than hospital workers. When exposure does occur, it tends to be less serious.

There does not appear to be any recorded case of an Australian police officer being infected with HIV in the course of their duties.

Rates of HIV infection in the community are dropping anyway. Around 0.1% of the Australian population is living with HIV. The vast majority are on effective treatment which reduces transmission to zero. By 2022, Australia’s aiming for virtual elimination.

As hepatitis C and HIV are blood-borne viruses, saliva alone cannot transmit them. Sometimes, the mouth can be contaminated with blood, particularly if there has been traumatic injury. But contact between bloody saliva and intact skin does not transmit hepatitis C or HIV.

A 2018 study bringing together more than 30 years of studies in HIV transmission concluded:

There is no risk of transmitting HIV through spitting, and the risk through biting is negligible.

A similar 2018 study looked at the risk of hepatitis C transmission and concluded the risk “appears to be very low”.

Of the blood-borne viruses, hepatitis B, the most transmissible of these viruses, is completely preventable through a vaccine all front-line workers receive.

What’s happening now?

In NSW and nationally, if someone is exposed to another person’s body fluids at work, they are assessed by health care workers in their agency.

The nature of the exposure, the possibility the other person could have a blood-borne virus (or if known, whether they are infected) and the resulting risk are considered when evaluating both the injury and the need for testing. If needed, they are tested according to policies informed by scientific evidence.

But the overwhelming majority of injuries, including bites, do not carry a risk of transmision.

In the rare scenario, where the risk of HIV infection cannot be ruled out, the worker may be offered medications to prevent infection, and follow-up blood tests. These medicationsdramatically reduce risk of transmission but must be taken within 72 hours of the exposure.

Workers potentially exposed to hepatitis C can be monitored for infection, and given medications with near 100% cure rate if required.

So current measures are more than adequate to deal with all situations a police officer or other front-line worker will confront, and have been so since these issues were first addressed in the early 1990s.

Compulsory testing could cause harm

Front-line workers deserve our support and protection. But if these workers feel anxiety or distress related to their risk of contracting blood-borne viruses then their health services must more adequately reassure them.

New measures won’t help reduce their already low risk of transmission and therefore don’t provide any additional reassurance. Focussing on getting the other person tested might increase their anxiety when the risk is negligible, irrespective of the person’s status.

In the rare higher risk situations, perhaps an ambulance officer injured while at a car accident where there is massive blood loss, the risk of a blood-borne infection needs to be assessed and preventive medicine offered. Delaying this assessment while waiting for the results of compulsory testing has the real potential to harm the worker.

The proposed legislation also stigmatises people living with blood-borne viruses, incorrectly depicting them as dangerous, creating unnecessary fear, leading to discrimination.

We are working with the board of the Australasian Society for HIV, Viral Hepatitis and Sexual Health Medicine (the peak body representing HIV, viral hepatitis and sexual health workers) and oppose mandatory testing measures as neither necessary nor useful.

New Zealand: Despite spitting not transmitting HIV, prison officers are tested every 3 months for a full year if coming into contact with spit

Corrections officer spat in face by prisoner waiting months for test results

A Corrections officer who was spat in the face by a prisoner during the Covid-19 lockdown has spent months waiting to find out if he now has a serious disease.

Under the Corrections Act, any officer who comes in to contact with a prisoner’s bodily fluids must undergo a year of testing for infections like HIV and hepatitis, before getting a clean bill of health.

The Corrections Association has asked for a law change that would force any prisoner who spits or throws bodily fluids to be tested as well.

On 25 March two Corrections officers were spat in the face while restraining a prisoner.

One of the officers told RNZ they had the prisoner’s saliva in their eyes and mouths and were then threatened by him.

The prisoner told them “I hope you get coronavirus and your kids and wives get it too and hope they die”, the officer said.

“This was very concerning as it was at the height of the coronavirus threat in New Zealand and there was the likely possibility of contracting other viruses.”

He was then sent to the doctor for tests and told he would not know if he had hepatitis until a second blood test three months later.

The officer said he would need one year of three monthly tests before HIV could be ruled out.

He said he was worried about catching a serious illness and waiting so long to find out was taking a huge toll.

“My wife and kids refrain from hugging me and I use my same plate, cup, and cutlery every meal.

“I must clean everything I use thoroughly to help reduce the possible transmission.”

The officer is still waiting for the all clear.

However, the New Zealand Aids Foundation says saliva is not an effective route of transmission of HIV and studies have shown HIV cannot be transmitted through spitting.

Corrections Association president Alan Whitley said the long delay for answers weighed heavily on the staff.

“It gives them 12 months of uncertainty about what’s happening with their health and whether they could have caught anything from the prisoner.

“It puts an enormous amount of stress on them.

“They’re sitting there not knowing whether they’ve got anything but if they have got something, is it contagious? What sort of treatment can I get? Can they get any treatment if they don’t know what I’ve got can there be a broad spectrum treatment. Is it the right thing to do?

“All sorts of things run through their mind,” he said.

In May, he asked the minister of corrections to make an amendment to the Corrections Act to make any prisoner who assaults an officer with bodily fluid to also be tested for possible infections.

“What it would mean is that the prisoner could be tested and the results of the tests released to the staff member for their doctor.

“Now, if there’s nothing, if it shows nothing, there’s a little bit of a comfort that they may not have picked anything up, they’ll still need to go through the same testing, but the understanding is there that the likelihood is low.

“If the prisoner has got something, then they can discuss that with the medical professional and he can or she can make a decision on what type of treatment they should undergo.”

However, the minister, Kelvin Davis, said changing the Corrections Act could be a breach of the Bill of Rights and would not provide a result any faster.

Any assaults on Corrections staff were completely unacceptable and he expected them to be responded to very seriously and the perpetrators held to account, he said.

“Changing the Corrections Act to introduce compulsory testing is unlikely to deter a person from spitting in the heat of the moment.

“Including a power in the Act to test a person by force is also likely to increase risk to staff, as it would require further close contact with the perpetrator.”

National Party corrections spokesperson Simeon Brown didn’t agree.

He said prison officers should not have to go through a year of uncertainty.

“I think prisoners are in prison.

“They essentially give up certain aspects of the human rights when they’re there and they are being held there to protect the rest of society from them.

“At the end of the day, this is about ensuring that corrections officers who are on the frontlines working to keep us safe are also protected from any diseases or illnesses they may pick up from prisoners.”

Brown said National would support a law change because Corrections officers deserved to have confidence the system would back them up.