Multiple organisations in the HIV advocacy sector are condemning laws set to be debated by West Australian Parliament on Tuesday which propose mandatory HIV testing for prisoners who assault a prison officer.
The Western Australian AIDS Council (WAAC) and the National Association for People with HIV Australia (NAPWHA) say that the proposed ‘Prison Amendment Bill 2020’ inflames stigma by falsely equating HIV with criminality, and is overall lacking in scientific accuracy.
The WAAC and the NAPWHA also say that the WA Government is inaccurate regarding the HIV testing period to determine if someone if infected via blood-to-blood contact.
Chairperson of the WAAC and a major advocate against the amendments, Asanka Gunasekera, pointed out the obvious flaws behind the WA Government’s science.
“Part of the case for these laws rests on the discomfort prison officers face when they are spat upon. However, HIV is not transmitted through saliva, destroying one of the key arguments for introducing this legislation,” they said.
“The Government has also argued a prison officer may face an anxious three-month wait to know if they have contracted HIV. The truth is that modern tests pick up the presence of HIV within six days of exposure. The truth is conclusive tests for HIV take two weeks, and rapid tests provide highly accurate results within 15 minutes.”
The 2020 Bill is primarily concerned with the risk of contracting HIV, Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C.
When the Bill was introduced to Parliament in February this year, the argument was that if a prison officer had blood-to-blood contact with a prisoner, they’d have an anxious three or six-month wait before they found out whether they were infected with the diseases mentioned earlier.
Instead, testing the prisoner could verify whether or not the prison officer was at risk of exposure and therefore reduce anxiety surrounding the wait times for testing.
However, Gunasekera told Star Observer that these reasons fail to recognise the current scientific status of these infectious diseases and compound pre-existing stigmas.
“Obviously that is at fundamental odds with the science we know that if there is an exposure to HIV, Post Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP) administered within 72 hours prevents disease acquisition,” they said.
“You don’t need to forcibly test anyone. You just need to make sure that anyone who feels they are at risk is given an immediate course of treatment, which is no more than 28 days of taking one tablet a day.
“For hepatitis B, there is a vaccination available to prison guards when they start employment.
“For hepatitis C, there is a cure. So, you’ve got treatments and medications which if accessed quickly, totally negate the risk of disease acquisition.
“So when you say ‘well look, we’re gonna forcibly test prisoners to find out if they’re HIV positive or positive for hepatitis B or C’, you add a level of criminality to these diseases.
“That contributes to stigma and runs opposite to the WHO and UNAIDS promotion of health outcomes. So we do think these laws are an affront to evidence-based health policy.”
This stigma makes it difficult for organisations who are in the business of reducing stigma and advancing health promotion services, such as the WAAC and the NAPWHA, to engage with people if there is perceived criminality with these diseases.
“It’s been claimed that these proposals will reduce the anxiety of front line workers, in this case, prison officers, should they be exposed to HIV due to the actions of a prisoner,” President of NAPWHA, Scott Harlum said.
“In some error of fact that the government’s making, the best practice approach for someone with legitimate exposure is to have them properly medicated and have support services provided.
“Any of these measures cast a shadow over people living with HIV. Any law or action that has a stigmatising effect towards HIV affects testing rates and increases the risk of transmission. People are simply less willing to put their foot forward and get tested if you create that stigma.”
Likewise, the CEO of the Australian Federation of AIDS Organisation (AFAO), Darryl O’Donnell, believes that re-enforcing this stigma is “inexcusable”.
“Mandatory testing has no basis in science and sends all the wrong messages about HIV. The more stigma is attached to HIV, the less likely people will be to get tested, ultimately frustrating our attempts to end transmission. Inflaming ignorance and discrimination has always been a problem. In 2020 it is, frankly, inexcusable,” he told Star Observer.
The Prisons Amendment Bill 2020 mirrors the ‘Mandatory Testing Infectious Diseases Act of 2014’. In WA, this 2014 Act was introduced into parliament by former Police Minister and current WA Opposition Leader, Liza Harvey.
While Harvey intended the 2014 Act to apply to Police officers, these laws are moving to prison officers through the 2020 Bill in an attempt to ‘protect’ public sector employees.
However, the WAAC believes that if legislation like this needs to exist, testing should be prescribed by a medical practitioner to counteract “subjective layman’s opinion” and encourage education.
The WAAC notes that a fundamental flaw in both the 2014 Act and the 2020 Bill, is that a medical procedure, such as a blood test, should instead be administered by doctors rather than a ‘chief executive officer’ such as the Warden of a prison.
“When you use the word ‘AIDS’ you immediately get this spectre of the grim-reaper, and they immediately pass this legislation through thinking it’s in the best interest of prison officers,” Gunasekera said.
“What’s in the best interest of officers is to actually educate them so that they know that HIV doesn’t actually exist in saliva, and that there has not been one recorded case of biting leading to HIV transmission. More importantly, the cures mentioned are actually a smarter way to deal with the anxiety that will follow from a risk incident.”
While organisations in the HIV sector have called for a review from a legislative committee into the Bill, Gunasekera told Star Observer that the COVID-19 pandemic could allow the 2020 Bill to be “rushed” through WA Parliament without oversight.
“On Friday the legislation was amended to include blood tests for COVID-19. Now it’s COVID-19 legislation, so it allows the government to bypass standing orders and once you make it COVID-19 legislation you can’t refer it off to a legislative committee.
“It’s being rushed through at a time where WA has seen zero new cases in seven days, yet it’s still being used to get the government’s agenda up.
“Many in the HIV sector have independently written to The Minister [The Hon. Francis Michael Logan MLA] saying that this matter needs to be sent off to a legislative committee so it can be debated properly and evidence can be taken for legislation to be effective.
“Now we know COVID-19 is still prevalent, but it’s telling that at a time of easing restrictions, COVID-19 is being used and added to this bill so it can be rushed through parliament. That is a deeply worrying way for a parliamentary democracy to operate.”