San Francisco Chronicle: Treat HIV as a public health matter, not a criminal one

March 21, 2017

Treatment of HIV, the virus that leads to AIDS, has grown by leaps and bounds since the epidemic was at its height in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

It’s time for our state law regarding the disease to evolve, too.

Under current California law, it’s a felony for an HIV-positive person to have unprotected sex without informing a partner about the virus. It’s also a felony for an HIV-positive person to donate blood, tissue, breast milk or organs.

Finally, those who engage in sex work while HIV positive can be charged with a special felony penalty.

State Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, has introduced a bill, SB239, that would reduce these penalties to the status of a misdemeanor.

Wiener worked with organizations that work with public health, gay rights and criminal justice reform to craft the measure.

The idea is to reduce the stigma and public health problems around HIV by treating it the same way, legally, as other communicable diseases.

“It moves HIV into the legal regime that covers all communicable diseases, like hepatitis or tuberculosis,” said Rick Zbur, executive director of Equality California.

“This is about removing the specific penalties that treat HIV-positive people very differently from people with other communicable diseases. It’s been a detriment to testing, treatment and public health.”

The current laws that SB239 would change were passed at the height of the epidemic, when misinformation was rampant and panic around the disease was general.

As scientists, doctors and the public have learned more about HIV, we’ve started to treat the disease in our own lives like the public health matter it is.

Read the editorial on the San Francisco Chronicle website