Controversial HIV Law in Iowa Could Be Changed

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A letter sent by HIV expert Dr. Jeffery Meier, an associate professor of internal medicine at the University of Iowa, to state lawmakers said that even in someone with a detectable viral load, the “riskiest” form of sexual intercourse carried a less than “1.7 percent per-act risk of transmission.”

With modern HIV medication, Meier added, the low risk of transmission is either reduced by 96 percent or possibly even eliminated.

“Given the prognosis for people newly-diagnosed with HIV, it is inappropriate to maintain criminal laws embodying the mindset that people living with HIV are carrying a ‘deadly weapon,’” wrote Meier.

Advocates and public health officials have noted that the HIV-specific laws were passed in the early- to late-'90s before new research showed that modern medicine made HIV a manageable disease for most patients. Iowa's current law passed in 1999.

The Iowa Department of Public Health created an informational sheet for lawmakers that said an updated statute could help with public health efforts to identify and treat people with HIV.

“Criminal statutes may work against existing public health measures, such as HIV partner services and HIV case management, which require trust of public health officials to keep information about behaviors, partners and exposures confidential,” read the letter from the Iowa Department of Public Health.

Public health officials in Iowa have previously been called to testify in trials about a defendant's HIV status when they were being prosecuted under the current law.

"It is inappropriate to maintain criminal laws embodying the mindset that people living with HIV are carrying a ‘deadly weapon,’"- Dr. Jeffery Meier

Advocates said they’ve heard from people who do not want to get tested because they fear getting arrested.

Tami Haught, an advocate from the Community HIV and Hepatitis Advocates of the Iowa Network, said there is still stigma attached to the disease.

“’Take the test, risk arrest,’” said Haught of some attitudes toward testing in states with HIV-specific laws. “We now know the earlier someone is tested and gets treatment, the longer, more-productive life that person can live. ... If we could get rid of the stigma associated with HIV, we could get a lot further a lot of faster.”

According to Randy Mayer, the Bureau Chief for the HIV, STD and hepatitis at the Iowa Department of Public Health, people with HIV in Iowa are often diagnosed after they have started to exhibit symptoms, a sign that the disease has had time to progress. Mayer said approximately 40 percent of people in Iowa diagnosed with HIV develop AIDS within one year and that approximately 2,200 people in the state have been diagnosed HIV positive.

If the law is changed, advocates have said, it will help ease the stigma of HIV and encourage people to get treatment earlier, which can help to stop the spread of the virus.

“We have better science and much better treatment. We’re hoping with [this bill] that HIV is no longer this separate other than contagious disease that’s going to be treated [differently] than other major contagious diseases,” said Donna Red Wing, the executive director for the LGBT advocacy group One Iowa.

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