by Joan Ruzsa
One of my jobs involves going to youth shelters to do sexual health and harm reduction education. I do what we call “HIV 101”, an overview of the virus, how it is contracted, and ways to prevent transmission. I always ask the youth if they can tell me the four ways that HIV can be transmitted, and invariably, somebody says “Saliva.”
My response usually goes something like this: “HIV is transmitted through blood, semen, vaginal fluid and breast milk. It cannot be transmitted through saliva. Although I can’t say that there is absolutely NO risk, you would have to drink gallons and gallons of saliva in order to get enough of the virus into your system for it to be an issue, and you would have to do it very quickly, because the virus dies approximately 77 seconds after leaving your body.”
I answer this way because I want to address the issue and quickly move on. I want to address it because there is still a huge amount of misinformation that exists about HIV, and it can’t be ignored. It is this lack of understanding that creates a culture of fear in which people are afraid to hug, kiss, share a glass with, or even be in close proximity with someone who is HIV positive. But I also don’t want to give the issue too much weight; on the contrary, I want to show the ridiculousness of it so that people don’t get stuck there. Getting stuck there means more stigmatization and ostracism of people living with the virus, and allows for an environment in which the increasing criminalization of HIV goes largely unchallenged.
I recently posted a story about Kristopher Wentworth, a Hep C positive man who spat at a deputy while he was in court, and was subsequently charged with aggravated assault, which carries a sentence of up to 14 years. In the story, a doctor was interviewed about the chances of transmitting Hep C through spitting. He said: “Only in rare circumstances. Open wounds on the spat-upon face combined with blood-laced saliva might increase the risk.”
Again, while I understand that the reporter felt the need to point out that it was “possible” to transmit the virus this way, let’s think about the odds that all of these conditions could be met. I think it would be fair to say that the answer would be “infinitesimal.” So let’s not get stuck there, because in this case, getting stuck there is being used as a justification to charge someone more severely solely because of a medical condition.
And this is not an isolated incident. I have received several calls in the last year from people who are facing similar charges. It is becoming a disturbingly common practice. I work with a man who is currently on remand awaiting trial for assault. This is a man with a serious brain injury, and other mental health and substance use issues. About eight months ago he halved his medication without the approval of his psychiatrist, and recognized that his mental state was deteriorating as a result. He called his parole officer to say that he was going to go to the hospital to get assistance. By the time he got there he was quite upset and angry, and one of the orderlies restrained him in a position which didn’t allow him to breathe. In his agitated state, he spat on the orderly and said “Here’s some Hep C, motherfucker.”
Now please understand, I am not condoning spitting on anyone or making threats. I am simply saying that if this man did not have Hep C, he would have been charged with common assault at most. To meet the criteria of aggravated assault, the behaviour has to be seen as “threatening the life” of another person. Now since spitting is clearly not a life-threatening activity, the only explanation I can think of for the severity of the charge is intent. By saying “Here’s some Hep C”, he must have been seen as intending to transmit the virus.
But how much weight can we put on intent when what is being threatened is a virtual impossibility? Let’s say I walk up to you and say “I am going to kill you through sheer force of will. I will stand here and emanate a killing force through my eyes until you drop dead.” Maybe I mean it with every fiber of my being. Maybe I bring a Jedi-like focus into trying to make it happen. It still ain’t gonna happen. So would it be reasonable for me to be charged with attempted murder? Of course not. You may as well charge me with magical thinking. So why are we doing it to people with Hep C?
There is a desperate need for education. We need to make sure that everyone has access to the necessary information and resources to prevent the spread of infectious disease. If we focus on harm reduction, and all of the ways we can reduce the risks associated with sexual activity, drug use, tattooing, etc., we can give people what they need to protect their own health, and the health of others. We need to be committed to raising everyone’s awareness around these issues, rather than allowing lack of knowledge and fear to justify the further criminalization of people living with HIV and Hep C.