Carlos Malvestutto and Michael Para | Guest columnists
At the height of the HIV epidemic, Ohio political leaders created six laws that were not based on science but on fear.
Twenty-five years later, we know far more about HIV and have proven tools to end the HIV epidemic. Unfortunately, these laws keep us from reaching that goal. It’s time to fix them.
Tremendous advancements in the treatment and prevention of HIV have been made. Reflecting on the frightening early days of the epidemic, it is astonishing just how far we’ve come.
We know that HIV is not shared by shaking hands, hugging, drinking from the same glass or even from kissing. We also know that antiretroviral treatment taken by people living with HIV reduces the virus to undetectable levels.
This leads to a fuller, healthier life and also means our patients cannot transmit the virus to others. Undetectable=Untransmittable
Like people living with diabetes, people with HIV who get the necessary health care can live long, healthy lives. While there is no effective HIV vaccine, we can prevent its transmission with education and medicine like PrEP.
When taken as prescribed, PrEP is more than 95% effective in preventing people from acquiring HIV.
Ohio HIV laws do not reflect these scientific facts.
Instead, they perpetuate fear and stigma, and discourage people from getting tested and treated. This is disheartening because 1 in 7 people living with HIV are unaware of their status and may be transmitting HIV without knowing.
If we could diagnose 90% of all people living with HIV and provide treatment to 90% of them, the HIV epidemic would effectively end.
This has already been achieved by several countries and cities overseas including Berlin, and by some U.S. cities like New York. Ohio is still a long way from achieving this goal, and our outdated HIV laws stand in the way.
We care for people living with HIV who fear being arrested for doing things other people don’t have to think twice about:
- An ex-partner can accuse our patients of not disclosing their status, forcing them to prove their innocence instead of being presumed innocent.
- They can be charged with a felony for spitting on someone – an act that will not transmit the virus.
- Even getting tested for HIV to know if they need life-saving treatment can put our patients at risk of felony charges for doing things that carry no risk to others.
In Ohio, it doesn’t matter if an accuser remains free of HIV.
Our patients can still be convicted of a felony. These laws target and punish the very people who took charge of their health, got tested and are taking HIV treatment for their health and the protection of others.
The good news is that we can move Ohio closer to ending the HIV epidemic by:
- Promoting and normalizing HIV testing to eliminate disinformation and stigma and to ensure that everyone knows their HIV status to take charge of their health.
- Offering people who test negative access to preventive measures such as PrEP.
- Helping people who test positive for HIV to start treatment as soon as possible to keep the virus undetectable to stay healthy, without fear of transmitting HIV to their partners.
These effective evidence-based strategies will work if we eliminate barriers including the unfair HIV laws that make living with HIV a crime.
We have joined the effort to modernize Ohio HIV laws and align them with the science to keep innocent people from being charged.
Prosecutors will still have the tools to punish people who act irresponsibly but barriers to people getting tested and treated for HIV will be removed.
Dr. Carlos Malvestutto is an associate professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases at The Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center. He holds a master’s degree in public health. Dr. Michael Para is a professor in the division.