Advocacy groups are calling on provinces to follow the Justice Department’s directive to stop unjustly prosecuting HIV-positive people for not disclosing their status if there is no chance they could transmit the virus to their sexual partners.
The directive to limit prosecutions involving people who are on HIV treatment was issued in December but applies only to federal Crown attorneys in the three territories.
Richard Elliott, executive director of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, said international scientific consensus on HIV transmission was reviewed by the Public Health Agency of Canada and informed the federal decision.
Ontario had already amended its policies but in a limited way to no longer prosecute people with a suppressed viral load and Elliott said Alberta has said in a letter to the network it has done the same but without stating that in a policy.
The federal directive goes further in saying people who also use a condom or engage in oral sex should generally not face serious charges such as aggravated sexual assault.
“We’ve written to all provincial attorneys general following the federal directive to say ‘Here’s the federal directive. We reiterate to you what the science is telling us and public-interest reasons for you to appropriately limit the use of criminal law.’ “
Inconsistent policies mean that HIV-positive people in most provinces may fear being threatened with prosecution by partners who have no basis for a complaint and could even shun treatment based on stigma and discrimination, Elliott said.
In July 2018, scientists from around the world, including Canada, published a consensus statement on HIV transmission in relation to criminal law in the Journal of International AIDS Society. It said correct use of a condom prevents transmission and that possibility is further decreased or eliminated when someone has a viral load that is low or undetectable.
The Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network and other organizations are currently pushing Attorney General David Eby to limit HIV prosecution in British Columbia.
“There is not a single circumstance identified in the current BC Prosecution Service policy where they say we will not prosecute even though both Ontario and the feds and Alberta, in a letter, have somehow been able to clearly state that no, we will not prosecute in our jurisdiction someone who has a suppressed viral load.”
Eby was not available for comment.
Dan McLaughlin, spokesman for the prosecution service, said the province is reviewing its policy and has been considering amendments to incorporate the directive of the federal attorney general.
The review will endeavour to ensure B.C.’s policy “addresses both public safety concerns and the issues of fairness and equity in a manner consistent with the law,” he said in a statement.
Elliott, who will be one of the speakers on the issue Tuesday at Simon Fraser University, said about 210 people across the country have been prosecuted for alleged HIV non-disclosure, the second-highest number in the world, after the United States.
Valerie Nicholson of Vancouver has been HIV-positive since 2004 and said her viral load has been negligible since 2008 because of the antiretroviral medication she takes.
Nicholson, who is a member of the Canadian Coalition to Reform HIV Criminalization, said B.C. is “behind the times” with its disclosure policy.
She said she always reveals her status to sexual partners but that information was used against her by a man who informed her a year and a half after their relationship ended that she transmitted the virus to him and he would call police.
“I lived in fear for six months waiting for that knock on the door for the cops to be there,” she said. “I work in this field and if that can do that to me what does it do for someone (else)? Do they stay in an abusive relationship?”
Her big worry was that she had no way to prove she’d had a conversation with the man about her HIV status at the beginning of their relationship, Nicholson said.
Angela Kaida, a Simon Fraser University global health epidemiologist with an interest in the links between HIV and sexual and reproductive health, said the evolving conversation around the virus that is treatable needs to include the latest scientific evidence.
“People can live a normal life expectancy, they can have babies, those babies can be HIV-negative and healthy. People can have sex without a condom and not transmit HIV,” said Kaida, who will also be a featured speaker at the university on Tuesday.
“We have that science but what we haven’t resolved is the stigma, the discrimination and misinformation about HIV. What the evidence tells us that even if we criminalize people it’s not serving a public health goal.”