A hardline criminal prosecution response to HIV transmission is hampering prevention efforts, according to a peak national HIV advocacy organisation.

The National Association of People Living With AIDS (NAPWA) has released a monograph calling for nationally consistent laws and a move away from prosecuting people who may have transmitted HIV to another person or exposed another person to the virus.

The monograph – Criminalisation of HIV Transmission in Australia: Legality, Morality, and Reality – is being launched in Parliament House, Canberra tomorrow by Parliamentary Liaison Group for HIV/AIDS chair, Senator Louise Pratt and includes a foreword by former High Court justice Michael Kirby.

NAWPA president Robert Mitchell told Sydney Star Observer a sharp rise in legal action is frustrating HIV prevention attempts and should be used only as a last resort.

“A major problem in Australia is we’re dealing with different jurisdictions, and criminal prosecution is totally removed from any sort of public health discourse,” Mitchell said.

“We believe in the first instance these people should be supported and counselled to try and help them change their behaviours – criminal sanctions will not change people’s behaviours.”

There have been 22 known criminal cases for HIV transmission/exposure since 1993, 12 of which have gone through Victorian courts.

Almost half of the total number of prosecutions have occurred in the last three years.

In 2008 alone, six cases appeared before courts across the country, with four in Victoria, including the highly publicised Michael Neal case.

Mitchell said state-based HIV support groups have expressed concern that highly publicised court cases are having negative flow-on effects for people living with HIV.

“The main concern for us is the stigma of discrimination that this engenders for HIV positive people, in [making] them feel they’re being seen as perpetrators and guilty,” Mitchell said.

“It impacts at a personal level… people get fearful knowing their status because they fear it may be used against them in future prosecution.

“They’d rather not know their status and that’s a very bad outcome because it means people do not know their HIV status or are not being tested for HIV which drives down testing rates.”

Concern has also been raised that a ‘moral panic’ is at play, with other blood-borne diseases, such as hepatitis, not attracting the same court action.

Monograph co- editor and NAPWA deputy director Dr John Rule said the trend towards HIV criminalisation is exactly opposite to the way HIV transmission has been handled in the past.

“Why are these [legal] cases occurring now when we have a set of guidelines for the management of someone with HIV who place others at risk? That’s what we’re asking.

“Other [monograph] writers have raised the possibility that the criminal transmissions and the prosecutions may, in fact, be a way of trying to manage a public perception.

“It could undermine, in the long run, prevention efforts,” he said.

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