HIV is a public health issue not a crime say advocates
Advocates for people living with HIV and sex worker support organisations have condemned the arrest and subsequent media stigmatisation of a transgender person living with HIV who was also a sex worker in WA.
The trans woman was arrested by Sydney police for extradition to WA to face charges of grievous bodily harm after allegations of HIV transmission were raised.
HIV advocates suggest the move was counterproductive to the strategic plan to end HIV transmissions by 2020 as it compounded unfounded fears surrounding the virus and further stigmatised people living with HIV.
HIV is a public health issue not a criminal one, say advocates.
Cameron Cox CEO of the Sex Workers Outreach Program (SWOP) suggests criminal prosecutions should only occur in cases where it can be shown that there was a clear intent to transmit HIV.
"Jurisdictional prosecutorial guidelines should be developed to clearly distinguish between the intention to transmit HIV and the act of having unprotected sex," Cox says. "Where people may be putting others at risk of HIV infection, public health legislation in all states provides for the effective management of those persons within a public health framework. This management consists of a staged series of interventions, starting with counselling and escalating physical detention or police action as a last resort."
Scarlet Alliance, Australian Sex Workers Association and the National Association of People with HIV Australia (NAPWHA) released a public statement addressing the issue:
"Although reports of HIV transmission often get considerable attention in the media, HIV is a public health issue and Australia's public health response to HIV has been highly effective. Public health interventions that prioritise education and support over punitive legal sanctions are the most effective way to manage transmission risk,” the statement reads.
Cipriano Martinez, President of NAPWHA explains one of the organisations main aims is to reduce transmission.
“The most effective way to achieve this is through community education, engagement and empowerment. There are alternatives to the criminal justice system that are more appropriate for the management of allegations of HIV transmission. The overly broad application of the criminal law just makes things worse, both for the individuals involved and for the wider community.”
According to the organisations, the current public health guidelines are more than adequate to deal with cases of HIV transmission without the need to engage in criminal charges.
“However even when a case of HIV transmission does come before the courts everyone, including people with HIV and sex workers, have the right to a fair trial,” the advocates write.
Advocates believe the current media coverage of the case will make this all but impossible and suggest news outlets are further stigmatising people living with HIV and other vulnerable groups such as sex workers.
Janelle Fawkes, CEO Scarlet Alliance, Australian Sex Workers Association says: “The involvement of money in sexual transactions does not increase the risk of HIV transmission. Sex workers with HIV can routinely exchange sex for money without putting themselves, or their clients, at risk. Any suggestion that occupation or gender identity is somehow responsible for HIV transmission is extremely naïve.”
Cameron Cox suggests criminalising HIV transmission not only undermines the notion of shared responsibility to prevent HIV, it creates stigma and discourages people from being tested. Cox also highlighted the important role sex workers had in Australia’s response to HIV.
Cox says: “Australian sex workers have excellent sexual health with STI rates equal to, or lower than, the non sex working population. To date there has not been one documented case of HIV transmission having ever been recorded in a sex work setting.”
“Safer sex is the responsibility of all parties involved in sexual activity. Shared responsibility must be a focus of health education campaigns if we want to see improved outcomes in Australia.” adds Josephine Rayson, Manager, Magenta, WA Sex Worker Support Service.
All the advocates stressed the complexities of disclosure and suggested at times a person revealing they had HIV could place them at risk of violence or discrimination.