Living Positive Victoria, the organisation representing Victorian people living with HIV, has called for community and cross-party political support to reform outdated and unfair criminal laws which are impeding the state’s effective response to the HIV epidemic.
The call for local law reform is a response to the release today of the AIDS2014 Melbourne Declaration. The Declaration, announced by the organisers of the 20th International AIDS Conference, comes 9 weeks ahead of AIDS 2014, to be held in Melbourne in July 2014. This gathering of scientists, policy leaders and community will be the largest ever health congress held in Australia.
“Leading into AIDS2014 is a highly opportune moment to grasp the issue of law reform so that HIV is treated as a public health matter,” says Ian Muchamore, President of Living Positive Victoria.
The AIDS2014 Declaration focuses on the need to address multiple legal barriers in the global HIV response, in order “to defeat HIV and achieve universal access to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support”.
Legal barriers the AIDS2014 Declaration identifies include criminalisation and discrimination globally based on “gender, age, race, ethnicity, disability, religious or spiritual beliefs, country of origin, national status, sexual orientation, gender identity, status as a sex worker, prisoner or detainee, because they use or have used illicit drugs or because they are living with HIV”. These legal barriers are set to be a major focus of international attention at AIDS2014.
Criminal laws targeting transmission or exposure of others to HIV have been criticised globally as counterproductive to HIV prevention efforts. Victoria has Australia’s only HIV-specific criminal provision on the statute books. Section 19A of the Crimes Act 1958 carries a 25 year maximum penalty for intentional HIV transmission. It treats HIV infection as exceptional and applies a uniquely higher penalty than for other crimes of violence.
Evidence supports these concerns that criminal laws have a real and negative impact on the majority of people with HIV. In a recent survey almost half of people living with HIV report that they are worried about the current legal situation and that this impacts their willingness to disclose their status to sexual partners.
In HIV Futures Seven, 45.2% of survey respondents agreed with the statement "I am worried about disclosing my HIV status to sexual partners because of the current legal situation."
Although the law applies to intentional HIV transmission Muchamore says that the impact of having a unique law, which singles HIV out, “perpetuates stigma against all people with HIV and characterising them as a unique threat to community safety. We already have other criminal laws and a public health system in place, which the wider community should be assured are much more effective.
“It is simply unfair to single HIV out, especially when living with HIV is treatable, and one of several poor consequences is likely to be that fear of the criminal laws negatively impacts HIV prevention, HIV testing, engagement in care and the uptake of treatment.”