Uganda signs law criminalizing HIV transmission

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has signed a bill into law criminalizing HIV transmission, ignoring the warnings of public health activists who say the law will make will only further spread the severe epidemic, Buzzfeed reports.

The law will result in imprisoning HIV-positive people, an outcome that is very concerning to public health advocates. For offenders of the "intentional transmission of HIV," the legislation imposes a fine and ten years in prison,  while the "attempted transmission of HIV" is punished with five years.

Also troubling to public health advocates, the legislation imposes compulsory testing in certain cases, such as when a person is pregnant. The law also allows courts to order the release of a person's HIV status without consent.

The new law follows closely after the Ugandan Constitutional Court's striking down of the country's infamous anti-LGBT law, which had punished LGBT with life imprisonment and was invalidated based on an improper quorum requirement in its passing. According to public health advocates, the anti-LGBT law, which had also punished LGBTQ supporters, greatly hurt the struggle against HIV. In Uganda, being LGBT is incorrectly directly associated with having HIV/AIDS, so the anti-LGBT law was a great health danger for HIV positive people who were afraid to go to health clinics.

Public health advocates warn that, like the anti-LGBTQ law, this new law will further stigmatize HIV and further hurt the struggle it. Buzzfeed reports,

...the US Global AIDS Coordinator, Ambassador Deborah Birx, had called for the legislation to be rejected just after Parliament passed the law in May.

“Over the past 30 years, we have witnessed time and again how stigma, discrimination, and fear – and the misguided policies that stem from them – further fuel the epidemic by deterring those most in need from accessing lifesaving HIV prevention, treatment, and care services,” Birx said. “I join with the many health practitioners, HIV/AIDS and human rights activists, multilateral institutions, and individuals everywhere – in Uganda and around the world – in calling for the people and the Government of Uganda to reject this regressive bill.”

The provisions criminalizing HIV transmission resemble some provisions that are on the books in some U.S. states, but there has been a move in recent years to repeal them. Worldwide, said Asia Russell, an advocate with the U.S. organization Health Gap who is based in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, we’ve seen that “criminalization of HIV doesn’t work. It drives people away from services and fuels discrimination and fear.”

Kikonyongo Kivumbi of the Uganda Health and Science Press Association said in a phone interview, “It seems that Uganda is not committed to scaling down this pandemic — Uganda has chosen to moralize.” Uganda is one of the only countries in the world that gets a large amount of HIV funding but continues to have a spreading HIV epidemic, he said, in part because ideological approaches have trumped evidence-based approaches including access to condoms.

“Uganda’s performance is incredibly disturbing,” Kivumbi said. “How can you pass such an act which is a danger to public health?”