Editorials and Commentary
Outrage Could Set Back AIDS Battle
May 29, 2002
"What are we to learn from the tragedy of Nikko Briteramos...? ...Nikko is the 18-year-old South Dakota college student facing prosecution for allegedly having sex with his girlfriend without disclosing his HIV status.
"...The first obvious lesson is that HIV is everywhere. ...Just as real, and no less important, is the lesson that the HIV epidemic has been fueled by unprotected sex, and that our sexual partners either may not know their HIV status or may not share it with us if they do. But what other lessons might we be missing in our rush to conclusions about what this tragedy means? We have put enormous effort into a public health system that encourages people to get tested for HIV. Every time someone takes an HIV test, it gives us a chance to educate them about the disease, engage them in a discussion of their individual risks and discuss HIV prevention. If they test HIV positive, it gives us the opportunity to link them to health care and provide their partners with testing and prevention information. But these critically important opportunities are all lost if people are unwilling to be tested.
"Now consider the lessons that Nikko's experience may teach us about HIV testing. Nikko learned his status, cooperated with public health officials and honestly named his sexual partners. He was immediately arrested, imprisoned and branded a murderer on national television. Surely, many other young people at risk for HIV saw what happened to Nikko. Will they rush to get tested, because they understand that they are at risk? Or will they decide that the burdens of knowing their HIV status are so great and the risks of public vilification so high that only a fool would want to know his status?
"Finally, what lessons might Nikko's experience teach people with HIV about cooperating with public health agencies on issues of partner notification and prevention? If you have HIV, how can you now feel safe identifying your partners or discussing your sexual or drug habits with a public health worker...?
"Effective HIV prevention... demands that we have a public health system people trust -- not one they fear. ... Public health officials in Chicago and elsewhere must act immediately to convince communities at risk that they are not handmaidens of the criminal justice system. ..."
The author is executive director of AIDS Legal Council of Chicago.
05.16.02; Ann Hilton Fisher
This article was provided by U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is a part of the publication CDC HIV/Hepatitis/STD/TB Prevention News Update. Visit the CDC's website to find out more about their activities, publications and services.