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Arrests of HIV-Positive People Continue; CDC Must Act! Sign On!

December 18, 2009

Do you know that HIV isn't spread by spitting, and that condoms are an effective HIV prevention tool?

Of course you do.

But this information seems to be outside the knowledge of many in the legal system across this country, where the criminal prosecution of people living with HIV often continues to ignore the facts.

Take Action: Endorse the letter to CDC asking them to keep their own promises to address HIV criminalization.

It's bad enough that the criminalization of HIV wreaks havoc in the lives of those who are charged or jailed or labeled as bio-terrorists, like this case in Michigan. But these cases are also spreading misinformation about HIV -- scaring people away from testing, treatment and care, and feeding into HIV stigma.

So What Is CDC Doing About This?

Over a year ago, many of you joined together to call for CDC to combat the stigmatization and criminalization of HIV.

We received a heartening response last December. CDC pledged to:

  1. update their website, factsheets and Q&As to address these issues;
  2. develop internal talking points so CDC staff will deliver "consistent, scientifically accurate information" when they receive inquiries;
  3. make these talking points available to health departments;
  4. survey state health departments to see if they collaborate with criminal justice personnel (e.g., local prosecutors, correctional staff, law enforcement) and how they communicate on and address these issues; and
  5. develop a communications strategy plan and tools that state health departments can use to "initiate (or further enhance) dialogue and collaboration with their criminal justice counterparts."

Not bad for a start.

But then almost a year passed, with no visible action. We wrote to CDC and asked what was up.

Well, not as much as we'd hoped. They say they are moving ahead on the updated materials but have dropped the plans for both the survey and the communications campaign.

Not good.

Take Action by January 10

Tell CDC they need to honor their own commitment to a survey and a strong communications campaign for health departments and law enforcement to combat HIV criminalization.

Endorse the sign on letter as individuals, organizations or both. The letter is below and can be downloaded here.

Please endorse by January 10, and forward this to anyone who may be interested! And let's not go another year without full-scale, pro-active efforts from CDC to combat HIV stigma!

Thanks from everyone at the HIV PJA and Project UNSHACKLE!

P.S. Got another minute to confront HIV criminalization? Call the Macomb County Prosecutor's office in Michigan to ask them why and how they expect to arrest individuals for bio-terrorism because they have an infectious disease: (586) 469-5350. Click here for more information. And thanks to the Michigan Positive Action Network (MI-POZ) for their work on this!

Text of the Letter to CDC

January 10, 2010

Dr. Kevin Fenton, M.D., Ph.D., F.F.P.H.
Director, National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD and TB Prevention
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
1600 Clifton Road, N.E.
Atlanta, GA30333

Dear Dr. Fenton:

We are writing as concerned organizations and individuals, including the members and supporters of the HIV Prevention Justice Alliance and Project UNSHACKLE, to urge CDC to take action on the steps it had identified to address the criminalization of HIV.

Last October, you received a widely-endorsed letter from Community HIV/AIDS Mobilization Project (CHAMP) expressing our concerns about criminal prosecution of people living with HIV.

As we noted at that time,

Criminalizing HIV transmission ... has no preventative effects, further stigmatizes people already living with HIV and discourages others from disclosing their status or getting tested.

Further, these cases undermine the efforts of public health advocates who have worked tirelessly over the years to educate the public about HIV.

CDC has long maintained that contact with saliva, tears, or sweat does not exposure others to an appreciable risk of HIV transmission. The continued perpetuation of false information by the justice system and the media on how the virus is transmitted underscores the need for more effective HIV communication and education strategies at the highest levels that are accessible to the general public.

In light of an unabated and growing HIV epidemic among certain segments of the U.S. population, we believe that it is incumbent upon the CDC to aggressively respond and provide the public with the most accurate information to reduce HIV vulnerability.

In December 2008 -- one year ago -- you replied in writing that CDC would undertake the following actions:

  1. Update and expand the "Rumors, Myths and Hoaxes" section of CDC's website to more fully address the issues [CHAMP has] raised.
  2. Update and expand our factsheet and Q&As addressing HIV transmission so that these materials better address myths and misconceptions.
  3. Develop a set of internal talking points to ensure that CDC staff members are equipped to deliver consistent, scientifically accurate information when they receive inquiries from the field on these issues. These talking points will also be made available to our health department partners.
  4. Survey state health departments to determine whether they currently have collaborative relationships with criminal justice personnel (e.g., local prosecutors, correctional staff, law enforcement). In states where such ties exist, the survey would include questions for delivering HIV prevention messages and information to those who work in criminal justice settings; it might also incorporate questions about the communication and policy channels health departments employ to address the efforts that misapprehensions about HIV transmission among criminal justice personnel may have on HIV-infected persons and HIV prevention programs.
  5. Using information obtained from the surveys, develop a communications strategy plan and tools (e.g., informational brochures, question and answer sets) that state health departments can use to initiate (or further enhance) dialogue and collaboration with their criminal justice counterparts. On behalf of the HIV Prevention Justice Alliance, CHAMP contacted you in October to request a progress report on these important steps.

While you report that the first three items will be addressed by mid-December, we are deeply concerned to see that the final two items -- which would substantively increase the reach and effectiveness of the revised materials -- have been taken off the table.

You write that CDC will not survey state health departments, having decided it would be "better to use time and resources to focus on other [unspecified] activities related to criminal justice issues."

Further, you then say that the development of a communications strategy cannot be done without the completion of the survey. We fail to see how your decision to eliminate the survey plans eliminates the capacity or negates the pressing need for the development of a communications strategy.

In the meantime, the arrest, prosecution and imprisonment of people with HIV continues, spreading misinformation and stigma in its path.

Our initial encouragement at CDC's list of steps on this issue has been greatly tempered by over a year of delay and a significant diminishment of its scale and scope. What we now see is a process of updating materials without a systematic assessment of local need or even a plan for their pro-active use.

Thus, we request:

  1. articulation of what "better" activities CDC will engage in, in lieu of a survey,
  2. a revised and practical plan for assessing the need and opportunities for communication strategies on HIV criminalization, and
  3. a re-commitment to an aggressive and clear timeline for a strategic communications campaign on these issues.

We would appreciate a response to this letter no later than January 31, 2010.

Walt Senterfitt
Co-Chair, Community HIV/AIDS Mobilization Project (CHAMP)
Member, Interim Steering Committee, HIV Prevention Justice Alliance

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This article was provided by HIV Prevention Justice Alliance. Visit HIV Prevention Justice Alliance's website to find out more about their activities and publications.
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