October 24, 2011
According to the Gothamist article "HIV Positive Protester Says Cop Who Punched Him Should Get Tested," last Friday, an Occupy Wall Street protester was punched in the face by a New York City police officer. The protester, Felix Rivera-Pitre, who is openly gay and HIV positive, told Gothamist, "The cop just lunged at me full throttle and hit me on the left side of my face. It tore my earring out. I remember seeing my earring on the ground next to me and it was full of blood. I was completely dumbstruck. I'm HIV positive and that cop should get tested."
The last time I checked, it's pretty difficult to transmit HIV through a punch in the face, even with an open wound.
Now, given all of the court cases and stories about people living with HIV who are thrown in prison for spitting on or biting a police officer, it is disappointing (and dangerous) for someone who works in the HIV field as a volunteer for VOCAL-NY, and who is himself positive, to be spreading mistruths about transmission. VOCAL-NY is an HIV grassroots organization that advocates for low-income individuals living with HIV, and while the organization may not specialize in HIV prevention or education, its volunteers should at least know the basics.
Thankfully, Sarah R., a reader, contacted Gothamist to set things straight and her email was added to the end of the original article:
I understand that you are directly quoting Felix Rivera-Pitre but feel that you are inadvertently perpetuating a dangerous myth about HIV/AIDS transmission.
I work as an HIV/AIDS educator and as anyone with knowledge of the virus can tell you, the risk of infection from the assault experienced by Rivera-Pitre is practically impossible. The common misconception that such contact can result in infection has contributed to the stigma and ostracizing that people living with HIV/AIDS experience on a regular basis.
The fact that this headline and article reinforces this harmful idea is evidenced by some of your readers comments with one stating that Liberty Square should be disinfected. I admire your aim to cover the police brutality and give voice to Felix who has bravely chosen to reveal his status but I ask you [to] reevaluate how what appears to be a sensationalizing headline can be damaging to the community you are trying to present.
What's extremely problematic is that, had this person not written this letter, Gothamist might have never corrected its article -- and that is a serious journalistic ethics issue. People can say what they want, but media organizations have an obligation to fact check such statements and provide the reader with accurate information and context for those statements.
It's important to note that what happened to Rivera-Pitre is unfortunate and despite there being allegations that homophobia is the reason behind the altercation, the last thing that the HIV community needs is continued perpetuation of HIV transmission myths and more sensationalistic media headlines.
Watch the video below:
Warren Tong is the research editor for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.
Follow Warren on Twitter: @WarrenAtTheBody.
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