Page last updated at 12:58 GMT, Thursday, 25 February 2010

HIV infection: 'A complex issue'

Following the conviction of Mark Devereaux for infecting a woman with HIV, Catherine Murphy from the HIV and sexual health charity Terrence Higgins Trust, outlines some of the problems surrounding the issue.

"A brief glance at headlines like 'Evil HIV Fiend' or 'AIDS Avenger' could lead some to assume that HIV prosecutions are a simple case of 'good' vs. 'evil'; that they act in the public interest as a deterrent against HIV infection.
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Over a quarter of people living with HIV in the UK don't know they have it.

In reality, the issue is far more complex.

Prosecutions and the coverage they get take a heavy toll on people living with HIV and can actually serve to work against public health measures that stop HIV spreading.

The greatest risk of HIV being passed on comes where people are not aware of their infection.

When people are diagnosed, they can access treatment to reduce the infectiousness of their HIV and get help to manage safer sex.

Over a quarter of people living with HIV in the UK don't know they have it.

Hysterical headlines

So the message that these prosecutions send out: That if a person has HIV they will tell you, is a dangerous one.

HIV is a potential risk for anyone having unsafe sex and protecting partners needs to be a shared responsibility.

We know that the main reason people don't come forward for HIV testing is fear of stigma.

Tackling the myths and prejudice associated with HIV is essential in halting the epidemic.

Hysterical headlines and failure to communicate basic HIV facts by the press, police and courts mean that these cases often worsen HIV stigma.

The Devereaux case is the first in Scotland to involve prosecution for HIV exposure as only one of the four women involved contracted HIV.

This is a worrying precedent and unique in the UK.

It is not possible to bring a similar case in England or Wales.

This is because a 'catch- all' offence of reckless conduct is used in Scotland; widening the scope for prosecutions and leaving people with HIV in a vulnerable position, unsure of what is legally required of them.

Real fear

There is no question that people living with HIV need support to manage their sexual health.

What is not understood is the way that these prosecutions can discourage people from seeking help.

Currently any HIV positive person wanting to speak to an advisor about difficulties with sexual health or condom use has to do this knowing that the conversation could be used against them in court.

The real fear is that people living with HIV will be discouraged from seeking help with these important issues.

The law being used in Scotland to prosecute people for transmitting HIV was not devised with HIV in mind and has yet to establish what evidence or proof should be needed to convict.

It shows little understanding of this complex issue and fails to recognise the changing nature of HIV infection.

Most importantly it runs the risk of increasing HIV prejudice in Scotland and strengthening the forces that drive the epidemic."

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