July 8, 2011
This article was provided by the Nebraska AIDS Project. Jordan Delmundo is the organization's Public Policy Manager.
One year ago this month, the United States' Office of National AIDS Policy released the National HIV/AIDS Strategy (NHAS), the first-ever comprehensive coordinated HIV/AIDS plan to reduce the number of new HIV infections, improve access to care and eliminate the stigma and discrimination that undermines our best efforts to combat the AIDS epidemic. The strategy states that "state legislatures should consider reviewing HIV-specific criminal statutes to ensure that they are consistent with current knowledge of HIV transmission and support public health approaches to screening for, preventing and treating HIV."
Last May, the Nebraska Legislature passed LB 226, an "Assault with Bodily Fluids" bill that increases penalties for people living with HIV. The passage of the "Assault with Bodily Fluids" bill in Nebraska ignores the National HIV/AIDS Strategy and the three decades long effort to educate Americans about HIV/AIDS and how HIV is transmitted. The intent of the bill was to protect corrections and public safety officers in response to concerns from correctional facilities, but it falls short. Any policy that misinforms public safety officers about HIV, and how it is transmitted, threatens their ability to fully protect themselves and is likely to increase the stigma surrounding HIV. Governor Dave Heineman signed the bill into law on May 24th.
Laws keep us safe, but they also have the power to educate. By insinuating that "any bodily fluid" can transmit HIV, this law trashes 30 years of educational efforts, not to mention the millions of public dollars spent, to encourage people to get tested and teach them that HIV is not transmitted by casual contact (spitting, sharing a drink, etc). According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only breast milk, blood, vaginal secretions, semen and spinal fluid contain enough HIV to be infectious. Transmission is only possible if one of these fluids enters the body through a mucosal membrane. This law contains vague, unclear and especially incorrect statements about the risk of HIV transmission which will create confusion and lead to increased fear and stigma. Why not make this law as accurate as possible by naming those actual fluids that transmit HIV? Why not state the actual routes of transmission? Why have this HIV exceptionalism anyway? Nowhere in the 30 year history of the AIDS epidemic has a corrections officer been infected by the routes described in this law. According to the Nebraska Department of Corrections, there are only 19 people living with HIV in its entire system.
The intent of this law is worthy. We should protect those who protect us, but not at the expense of misinforming public safety officers (and the general public) of the actual risks or how to protect themselves. This law undercuts the most basic HIV prevention messages and breeds fear against people living with HIV.
In the near future, we hope lawmakers in Nebraska will reconsider their actions and answer the call of the National HIV/AIDS Strategy. This would be a major and forward thinking step to educate the public about how HIV is truly transmitted and eliminate the stigma surrounding HIV. Nebraska AIDS Project is committed to fighting HIV/AIDS and its stigma. We will continue to advocate for scientifically accurate laws and public policies that bring us closer to ending this epidemic.