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National organization speaks up against HIV-criminalization laws

The National Alliance of State Territorial AIDS Directors has added its voice to the growing movement opposing HIV-specific criminal laws, or enhanced sentencing for people because of their HIV status.

“HIV criminalization has often resulted in egregious human rights violations, including harsh sentencing for behaviors that pose little to no risk of HIV transmission,” the statement from the group reads. HIV criminalization undercuts our most basic HIV prevention and sexual health messages, and breeds ignorance, fear and discrimination against people living with HIV. NASTAD members commit to examining existing public health policies related to HIV criminalization that may exacerbate stigma and discrimination and lessen the likelihood that individuals will learn their HIV status. NASTAD members will also continue to emphasize the importance of providing comprehensive prevention and care services for HIV positive individuals to help reduce the risk of transmission to others.”

NASTAD represents the nation’s top HIV health staff from across the US and US territories who are tasked with addressing the HIV epidemic in their areas.

Currently, 34 states and two U.S. territories have laws which criminalize behavior of HIV positive people. Those laws criminalize failing to disclose an HIV-positive status before sex or needle sharing — regardless of protective measures the HIV-positive person may take. Some laws, such as Missouri’s specifically criminalize biting by HIV-positive persons, even though biting is not considered a transmission risk.

The group listed the following goals to address HIV-criminalization issues:

– Support the maintenance of confidentiality of HIV test and medical records in order to encourage and support individuals to be tested, learn their status and enter services if positive;

– Identify and share best practices related to successes in repeal of policies and/or laws and statutes in jurisdictions that are not grounded in public health science;

– Promote public education and understanding of the stigmatizing impact and negative public health consequences of criminalization statutes and prosecutions;

– Provide unequivocal public health leadership on the relative risks of transmission and the dangers of a punitive response to HIV exposure on the epidemic.

The announcement was praised by HIV advocates.

The National Association of People With AIDS (NAPWA) issued the following statement about the announcement:

The National Association of People With AIDS (NAPWA) applauds NASTAD’s ongoing support of the Positive Justice Project and the release of their statement in support of repealing existing HIV criminalization laws. NAPWA has a tremendous amount of respect and admiration for the work that NASTAD has done on behalf of the HIV community and will continue to work in partnership with NASTAD and any other organization that is working to protect the lives and dignity of people living with HIV/AIDS.

Sean Strub, the founding publisher of POZ Magazine and senior fellow for the Center for HIV Law and Policy in New York City, was also pleased with the announcement.

“NASTAD’s statement shows what real leadership looks like,” Strub said in a statement to Michigan Messenger. “As public health professionals, they took on a tough issue and released a statement that will pave the way for others to join the growing campaign to repeal HIV-specific criminal statutes. They are the public health professionals who are close to the epidemic and they know first-hand how powerfully stigma drives HIV transmission and they recognize how HIV criminalization drives stigma.”

“Today is a day when we can celebrate public health professionals with the courage to say what is right and what is in the best interest of public health, even when others are reluctant to take on such a difficult and poorly-understood issue,” Strub continued. “I commend Julie Scofield and Terrance Moore, NASTAD’s director and assistant director, and all of the members of NASTAD. Their statement will send a powerful message to legislators, prosecutors and others who, whether out of ignorance, fear, ambition or vengeance, promote HIV criminalization.”

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