Even after 30 years of fighting HIV, health experts say that the stigma and discrimination faced by those living with the disease remains one of the most significant barriers to treatment and prevention.
The unequal treatment can occur in employment settings, or in educational opportunities, or even in interactions with law enforcement.
Now, a police video of an August traffic stop in Michigan has become a prime example for advocates seeking to end HIV discrimination.
The incident involved Dearborn Police Officer David Lacey issuing a marijuana possession ticket to Shalandra Jones and a traffic ticket to her partner, Mark Scott. According to Jones’ attorney, Lacey discovered Jones was HIV-positive when he found her HIV medications during a search of the vehicle.
The video shows Lacey telling Jones that she should disclose her HIV-positive status whenever a police officer asks her to step out of a vehicle. Lacey said he was “pissed” that Jones hadn’t revealed her status before he searched the vehicle, and he told the couple: “Honestly, if it wasn’t for that, I don’t think I would have wrote anybody for anything. But that kind of really aggravated me, you know what I mean? You got to tell me right away, ‘I’ve got this. I’ve got that.’ ‘Cause at that time, I wasn’t wearing any gloves.”
Michigan law does not require disclosure of HIV status before a police search, and legal experts say Lacey was “out of line” for demanding such a disclosure. Health experts say that HIV is not spread through casual contact and that Lacey was at very low risk of being infected with HIV during the stop.
Such alleged discrimination can negatively impact public health, experts say.
Laurel Sprague, regional coordinator for the Global Network of People Living with HIV North America, said the incident represents a form of “shaming” that could impact the way people living with HIV take their medications. This can make their treatment less effective, which can make also make them more likely to transmit the disease to others.
“If people living with HIV feel they will be subjected to demeaning behavior by police officers if they are caught carrying their medications, then we can expect people to leave their medications at home, even at the risk of missing doses and developing resistance to the medications,” Sprague said.
Missing doses of medications can lead to development of resistance to the drugs, studies have found. And those resistant strains of the virus can be transmitted. The World Health Organization reports that in high-income countries, 10-17 percent of patients who begin taking HIV medication have a strain of the virus that is resistant to at least one antiretroviral drug. The resistance makes treatment more complicated and can result in whole categories of drugs being ineffective for care.
Reliable statistics on HIV-related discrimination are difficult to come by, but the U.S. Department of Justice has been involved in a series of such cases in recent years. In one instance, the DOJ supported an HIV-positive student who sued a school in Pennsylvania for refusing to allow him to attend. In another, the department reached an agreement with a laser hair removal company in New York that had refused to provide some services to people living with HIV.
In response to the Dearborn incident, medical experts and advocates for people with HIV have called for increased training for police. And those calls appear to be having an impact.
Following the release of the video, Dearborn police officials agreed to meet with a local health expert. Police Chief Ronald Haddad promised to carry out an investigation and announced a new round of HIV training for the department.
“We take these matters very seriously,” Haddad told the Detroit News. “We want our officers to be peak performers, and a complete review will occur.”
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