January 13, 2011
Even though HIV and hepatitis C are not spread through the transference of saliva, that scientifically proven fact didn't stop Nebraska State Senator Mike Gloor. On Jan. 10, Gloor proposed a bill that would make spitting on a police officer a misdemeanor in his state, but for someone living with HIV or hep C, the punishment would be much more severe.
The bill is 1 of 5 Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning listed in his legislative package last week.
Under the measure, assaulting a peace officer with bodily fluid would be a misdemeanor, carrying a penalty of up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.
The offense would be a felony if committed by those who know they are infected with HIV, AIDS or hepatitis B or C. The penalty would jump to up to five years in prison and up to a $10,000 fine.
As of now, it's unclear if this bill has any real support from other state politicians to get passed. But understandably, just the introduction of it has upset the HIV/AIDS community in Nebraska. Jordan Delmundo, Nebraska AIDS Project's Grants and Public Policy Manager, believes that the bill further encourages misconceptions about HIV/AIDS. "[Blood, semen, breast milk and vaginal fluids] are the only scientifically proven fluids that transmit HIV, not saliva," Delmundo told TheBody.com. He added, "We all are for the protection of those who work in public safety, but this bill only contributes to stigma and myths about the disease."
Delmundo is also concerned because this bill undermines the work that the Nebraska AIDS Project does to educate the community -- for instance, the group just recently launched the Nebraska AIDS Stigma Awareness Project (ASAP). "Our laws and government influence how people think," he said. "This bill, as written, reinforces the exact negative things that we at the Nebraska AIDS Project fight against every day."
View ASAP's public service announcement below:
What's equally as problematic as this bill is the media's mishandling of the issue. Not only is the Associated Press article extremely short and void of any quotes, the reporter (whose name does not appear on the article) omitted any mention of the fact that saliva has not been found to transmit HIV. By failing to do so, the reporter gives the false impression that the disease can be transmitted by saliva.
The Associated Press is not the only offender. Just last week, the Miami Herald published an article about the fight to get dying, HIV-positive, Florida inmate Betsie Gallardo a feeding tube before she starved to death in prison.
Gallardo, 27, was sentenced to five years in prison for resisting arrest and biting a police officer. In early 2010, she was diagnosed with stage IV gallbladder cancer. While she received cancer treatment in prison, a tumor developed that blocked her intestines, making it impossible for her to hold down food and liquids. However, prison officials refused to provide Gallardo with nutrition intravenously. Without food, Gallardo would have eventually starved to death.
While Miami Herald reporter Daniel Chang did a good job humanizing Gallardo throughout his piece and included quotes from advocates who believe that Gallardo was being unfairly punished because she is HIV positive, he published a quote that erroneously described the possibility of HIV transmission through Gallardo's act of biting. Chang wrote:
"The key was the biting," said [Alvin] Entin, [a Fort Lauderdale criminal defense attorney] who is not familiar with Gallardo's case, "because that's a transmission of fluids, and this officer has to basically get tested for years and even if, God forbid, one of them comes back positive, then [the officer] has a lifetime of living with it."
Nowhere in the article does Chang add quotes from an HIV/AIDS expert countering Entin's claims (that saliva is a mode of transmission and that there is a need to be tested for years after an exposure) with actual science. Again, these myths go completely unchallenged, hence allowing for untruth to morph into fact.
In fairness, I don't know these journalists personally. Nor do I know why these omissions occurred. Perhaps they did have an expert weigh in on the issue, but somehow it got edited out. Or perhaps they just didn't know much about HIV and didn't know that what was being said was incorrect.
But those are not really valid excuses, because regardless of the intent, such journalistic missteps are dangerous. The media is extremely powerful. With this power comes an immense responsibility for journalists, because media shapes how people see themselves and the world around them. Whether it's on the radio, online, in newspapers or on television, people trust the information they are given and rely on it to stay informed. Journalists should have a moral and professional obligation to report the facts, not omit them or remain ignorant to them, because the world is following their cue.
Just think about it. The Associated Press is a widely used and trusted news service that is distributed to roughly 1,700 newspapers and almost 5,000 television and radio stations. Given the sensationalistic nature of this topic, that article can easily be picked up by any one of those news sources. And over time, despite the existence of Web sites such as ours that provide accurate facts about HIV/AIDS, such articles can impact the psyches of its readers, exacerbating and spreading the negative attitudes and ignorance about HIV/AIDS that already exist among many Americans.
The media can magnify stigma, misinformation and phobia. Just look at what it did for the "down low": It played off society's own homophobia, religious convictions and racism -- and it continues to negatively impact cultural attitudes about HIV in black America.
Even though chronologically we are far removed from the "early days" of the U.S. HIV epidemic, when people living with HIV were banned from public swimming pools and often forced to eat off paper plates and with plastic silverware, I still come across people who continue to experience that same type of treatment now. They've confided in me that they have encountered people who don't want to hug them or share a plate of food. I've even heard stories of HIV-negative people bleaching their homes before and after someone living with HIV comes to visit.
We're 30 years into this epidemic. I'd like to think we as a society have learned more about HIV/AIDS. But I often wonder whether this culture of increasingly poor journalism, coupled with persistent societal ignorance and bias, may be causing us to regress. If people can be led to believe that a cultural center is a mosque, and if two years into his presidency there are still thousands who believe that Barack Obama is a Muslim who wasn't born in the United States, then anything is possible.
Kellee Terrell is the former news editor for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.
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