June 24, 2014 9:01 pm

Law that criminalizes HIV promotes spread of disease, doctors say

Above: In Part 1, we told you about Canadian doctors who say the criminalization of HIV-positive people comes from stigma, not science. In Part 2, Su-Ling Goh introduces us to those affected by the law.

EDMONTON — HIV nearly killed Marlo Cottrell after she was diagnosed in 1995.

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By the time treatments improved and she was well enough to start living life again, she faced another barrier:  Though it would be almost impossible for her to transmit the virus to a sex partner, she had to tell them she’s infected.

The law no longer requires people with HIV to disclose their infection to partners to avoid a charge of aggravated sexual assault, as long as they use a condom and have a low viral load. But Cottrell doesn’t take any chances: she discloses, uses a condom and takes medication to keep the virus in check.

Even still, an ex-boyfriend threatened her with charges a few years ago. It was her word against his.

“I was raising my daughter at the time,” Cottrell says, “and… I was afraid I was going to go to jail for it.”

Now, a large group of Canadian medical experts wants to change the law, which they say is fuelled by stigma, not science. It’s not only unfair, some argue; it promotes the spread of the virus.

READ MORE: Criminal law out of step with science of HIV, advocates say

The law can only be applied to those who know they have HIV, says Dr. Ryan Cooper, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. So, some people will just avoid getting tested.

“That stigma makes them less likely to get diagnosed, and certainly less likely to engage in care to take treatment.”

Cooper is one of 70 Canadian doctors who recently signed a consensus statement to inform those working in the criminal justice system about the science of HIV, and to prevent miscarriages of justice.

The statement says HIV, properly treated, is now a manageable, chronic condition. It argues that scientific and medical evidence show there is low to no possibility of HIV transmission through sex, even without a condom.

READ MORE: HIV isn’t easily transmitted by sex, Canadian doctors say 

“Once someone is treated for HIV… it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to transmit HIV infection,” Cooper says.

Putting HIV-positive people in jail for aggravated sexual assault, when sex is consensual and there is often no transmission, only adds to the stigma, Cottrell believes.

“To be put into a category with a rapist…” she shrugs and laughs.

“These aren’t people with malicious intent … It’s human nature to want to have relationships with people.”

It’s no easy task to tell a date you’re HIV-positive – even for the strongest person, she adds. The fear of rejection is constant.

But, after living with HIV for nearly 20 years, the 39-year-old has what she calls a “system” for telling potential partners.

“There’s a possible deal-breaker coming. And if I feel that you’ve earned my trust enough, I’ll share something with you.”

Cottrell is now in a long-term, committed relationship.

 

© Shaw Media, 2014

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