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Viral Apartheid: The Rise of HIV Exceptionalism the theme of presentation at GVSU for World AIDS Day

December 3, 2012

Earlier today, there was a presentation at the downtown campus of GVSU, hosted by the LGBT Resource Center.

HIV activist and journalist with the American Independent News Network, Todd Heywood, gave a talk entitled Viral Apartheid: The Rise of HIV Exceptionalism.

Todd himself is HIV positive and has been reporting on HIV for years and is in the process of writing a book, also entitled Viral Apartheid.Picture 1

He began with a graph that showed criminal prosecution of people who are HIV positive. Michigan has the second highest number of prosecuted cases in the country. One of the barriers to actually knowing how many cases have been prosecuted is due to the fact that HIV cases are often listed as felonious assault crimes.

The second layer of criminalization is the use of general criminal laws. For example, someone who is HIV positive and assaults someone else could be charged with bio-terrorism or other crimes, because of how the law defines HIV.

Heywood said that much of this is this due to the fact that America is generally ignorant about HIV/AIDS. Most people get their information from US news media, which Heywood says, “sucks on basic information on this issue.” The Kaiser Family Foundation report noted that most Americans have a 1987 level of understanding on these issues, which means that people still think you can be infected from a mosquito.

This lack of understanding on HIV issues also gets translated into law enforcement, where the police have internalized the misinformation about HIV. The CDC acknowledges that those who are HIV positive will lead norm lives, but the popular perception is that HIV is a “death sentence.”

Heywood said that this misinformation about disease in the US is more than a century old, in that it has been influenced by people he indentifies as “sanitarians,” people who have most often framed disease as something those in poverty create.

In 1890, the Koch postulate on germ theory, was published and led to the creation and use of antibiotics and vaccines. Much of this has been beneficial, but one negative outcome has been that American medical schools directed students away from studying infectious diseases beginning in 1980, because of the belief that there was no real need to further study this field of public health. Ironically, this was right at the time that HIV came on the scene.

The CDC set up its first task force in 1981, after several deaths had occurred in the US from HIV. Some of the early funding was directed at whether or not “too much sperm” was the cause of HIV.

In 1984, it was finally discovered what the virus was and Heywood said that the US media began reporting on this issue in 1985. Some reactions from this early reporting was that hospital workers wouldn’t treat those who were HIV positive and funeral homes would not take the bodies.

The federal government announced in 1985 that a cure must be found for this new disease before it gets out of the “high risk” group, which Heywood said was code for gays. Heywood believes that what motivated the federal government’s action was to stop the virus before it infected the “heterosexual community.”

Heywood says that from the get go those who were HIV positive were criminalized and that criminalization continues through to today. The 1988 federal commission on AIDS put forth recommendations, with the ones that emphasized criminalization as the ones getting most attention.

The federal law was later amended, which put emphasis on the idea of “intent to transmit the disease,” which continued to put the blame on those who were HIV positive. In 1988, the free market think tank American Legislative Exchange Council  (ALEC) produced a report, which promoted a particular drug as a cure. Written by Michael Tanner, the report was actually created by the pharmaceutical industry as a mechanism to make money. Tanner has since said the law are outdated and need to be changed.

In 2010, the National HIV/AIDS Strategy said that the emphasis on criminalization is not really working, so states should go back and review it in order to make changes. The federal government wants to make changes, but they cannot until the states invite them to do so. The federal government acknowledges that the current legislation violates the human and civil rights of people who are HIV positive, but this position has not translated into policy.

Heywood then presented what he called the evidence of failure on existing HIV policy that emphasizes criminalization. He said the current risk of transmission is .5% in the US. The CDC uses these numbers and this is without accounting for the use of condoms and HIV drugs, which make the transmission of HIV almost impossible. Nonetheless, people can still go to prison just for being HIV positive. By contrast, Gonorrhea transmission rates are 60 – 90%, yet there is no criminal prosecution for non-disclosure of Gonorrhea.

Heywood also said there is tremendous racial disparity in legal cases involving people who are HIV positive. Black men who have sex with White women represented 14% of the cases of HIV in the surveyed counties, but represented 41% of the defendants. Conversely, White men who have sex with men represent 39% of HIV cases in the region, but only 15% of the defendants.

In the end, criminalization does not prevent the spread of HIV and in fact, it increases the actual amount of transmission. Being HIV positive also put you at risk of being marginalized and increases your risk of being the victim of violence. Heywood stated that 78% of women who are HIV positive are the victims of domestic violence, due to the fact that they have to disclose.

Heywood ended his comments by saying that if we are to reverse the trend of criminalizing those who are HIV positive there needs to be more conversation about this issue, particularly in the LGBT community, people need to get tested and there needs to be greater emphasis of outreach, particularly to those who are not HIV positive.

Here is a slideshow that Heywood used during his presentation, which provides more details of the history and current laws, as well as sources for his data and citations.

Viral Apartheid MI

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