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When Will They Learn? Spit Does Not Transmit!

By Heather C. Sawyer, Staff Attorney, Lambda Midwest Regional Office AIDS Project

Fall 1997

An HIV-positive man in Ohio spits to clear mace from his mouth during an arrest, is convicted of assault with a "deadly weapon," and is sentenced to a 3 to 15 year prison term. Another man with HIV allegedly spits during a heated traffic altercation in Missouri and is charged under a state criminal statute targeting behavior that creates a "grave and unjustifiable" risk of HIV transmission. In that case, the Missouri prosecutor has promised to pursue the charge despite his public acknowledgment that "the scientific evidence has not demonstrated thus far that saliva can transmit HIV." Why? The man who spit knew he was infected with HIV.

As these injustices illustrate, law enforcement officials often misrepresent or ignore the medical and scientific evidence regarding HIV transmission, relying instead on some people's overblown fears and ignorance of HIV and the unpopularity of those perceived most likely to be infected. Such officials use the criminal justice system to whip up media hysteria and single out those with HIV for engaging in harmless, if at times perhaps obnoxious, conduct that otherwise would go unpunished.

Beyond the devastating effect that such criminal charges have upon the accused, the misuse of the criminal justice system to bring very serious and unwarranted charges against people with HIV undermines proven public health strategies to combat infection and AIDS. Sending the dangerously false message that people are at risk of getting AIDS from the saliva of a person infected with HIV not only undermines attempts to educate the public about the real routes of infection, but further fuels unfounded discrimination against people living with HIV. Such prosecutions also place a premium on remaining ignorant of one's HIV status. After all, the Missouri prosecutor's sole reason for refusing to drop criminal charges despite the lack of scientific evidence to support the case was that the man knew he was HIV-positive.

Research has shown that the intentional exposure of others to HIV is infrequent and does not pose a significant threat to public safety. Public health officials largely agree that coercive measures are not an appropriate or effective means of combatting HIV infection. Rather than wasting public resources on counterproductive criminal prosecutions, government and law enforcement officials should ensure that those in their ranks encourage AIDS awareness, not AIDS phobia.

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