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JAMA Commentary Opposes Criminal Punishment for HIV Exposure/Transmission

Authors to Discuss Issue at International AIDS Conference, August 3-8

CHICAGO, Aug. 4 /PRNewswire/ -- Criminal punishment for exposure to or transmission of HIV does nothing to reduce the spread of the virus. Instead, it increases stigma and drives people away from accessing care, while disproportionately burdening women and other vulnerable groups who are unable to disclose their HIV status to partners for fear of violence, according to a commentary in the August issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

Criminalization is becoming common around the world. In June, a Swiss court ruled that a person unaware he was infected with HIV, though aware that a former partner was infected, was criminally liable for having unprotected sex with a later partner who became infected. In May, a Texas court sentenced a man with HIV to 35 years in prison for spitting on a police officer, although the chances that the officer was exposed to the virus were virtually zero. Some laws expressly include pregnant women, putting them at risk of being prosecuted for exposing their unborn infants to HIV.

Anxiety about the negative effects of criminalization is growing, and opposition to it will be a prominent feature of the International AIDS Conference, August 3-8 in Mexico City.

The commentary is authored by Scott Burris, a Temple University Beasley School of Law professor and associate director of the Center for Law and the Public's Health at the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health; and internationally recognized AIDS activist Edwin Cameron, a Justice of the South African Supreme Court of Appeals and the first public official in Africa to publicly reveal that he is living with HIV. Michaela Clayton, director of AIDS and Rights Alliance for South Africa (ARASA) also contributed to the article.

"The central problem of criminalization is drawing the line between criminal and noncriminal behavior," the authors write. While agreeing that intentional infection of another is a criminal offense, they say "the difficulty arises with cases falling between ... " In addition, they note that it may be dangerous for some women to disclose their infection to their partners, " ... yet they face the added possibility of prosecution if they fail to disclose."

An extended version of the article is available on the Social Science Research Network (SSRN) at A research study by Burris and others finding no evidence of any positive impact of criminalization on risk behavior can be found at

The issue of criminalization will be discussed several times at the International AIDS Conference, including at the following sessions:

-- "Using the Law to Shape the Response to HIV: The Relevance of the SADC PF Model Law," Wednesday, August 6 at 7 a.m. Clayton presenting.

-- "To Transmit or not to Transmit: Is that Really the Question? Criminalization of HIV Transmission," Wednesday, August 6 at 11 a.m. Clayton presenting.

-- "Moving from Promises to Actions: Building Global and National Commitment for Evidence-Based Approaches to Addressing Stigma and Discrimination," Wednesday, August 6 at 12:45 p.m. Cameron presenting.

-- "Criminalization: Why, Where and What are the Alternatives?" Wednesday, August 6 at 4:30 p.m. Chaired by Cameron. Clayton also presenting.

-- "Criminalizing HIV+ Transmission? Good, Bad, or Pointless?" Thursday, August 7 at 10:45 a.m. Chaired by Cameron.

-- 'Meet the Plenary Speakers' session at 1 p.m. on Thursday, August 7. Cameron participating.

-- "The Role of Human Rights in HIV Related Interventions Amongst Vulnerable Groups," on Thursday, August 7 at 2:30 p.m. Burris presenting.

-- Plenary session "Criminal Statutes and Criminal Prosecutions -- Help or Hindrance?" on Friday, August 8 at 9 a.m. Cameron presenting.

"Criminalization is costing lives and increasing suffering," said Cameron. "It assumes the worst about people with HIV, when a human rights-based approach would empower people and enable them to make safe, health-seeking choices for themselves and for others."

Burris argued that criminalization is simply the wrong framework for dealing with HIV. "HIV is a virus, not a crime. Public health measures that help people behave safely are effective in reducing transmission; prosecutions are not," Burris said.

For more information, or to speak to Burris, Cameron or Clayton, contact Jennifer Bilotta at 215-793-4666 or 215-206-6268 (cell).

SOURCE Temple University Law professor Scott Burris
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