Global BC: Criminal law out of step with science of HIV, advocates say

By Sue-Ling Goh

EDMONTON — When HIV-AIDS first hit North America in the 1980s, diagnosis almost always meant early death. As the virus spread out of control, the legal system began to see unprecedented cases: people with HIV charged with serious offences – most commonly aggravated sexual assault. Since the early 1990s, more than 150 HIV-positive people have been taken to court in Canada for not telling their sex partners they have the virus.

But now that treatments have advanced to the point that HIV is no longer fatal nor easily transmitted, doctors argue the law is due for an update.

“We were concerned that injustices were happening — or they could happen,” says Dr. Ryan Cooper, an infectious disease specialist from Edmonton. He was one of more than 70 Canadian HIV experts who recently released a consensus statement.

The statement says HIV, properly treated, is now a manageable, chronic condition and that people with HIV have the same life expectancy as anyone else. It argues that scientific and medical evidence show there is low to no possibility of HIV transmission through sex, even without a condom.

“When HIV is treated with anti-retroviral drugs … it becomes very hard to transmit,” Cooper says. “There’s a near-negligible chance of transmission.”

Doctors and scientists have a duty to help those working in the criminal justice system understand the science of HIV, to prevent miscarriages of justice, the statement concludes.

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