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Sunday, January 21, 2018
The trouble with Public Health: HIV/AIDS in Canada as a case in point
It has been known among HIV/AIDS specialists for many years that infected people are for all practical intent and purposes unable to transmit the virus on to their sex partners, provided they consistently take anti-HIV medicines that render the amount of the virus in their bloodstream undetectable. Common sense would have suggested that Public Health authorities should have acted on this knowledge and ensured that it is deployed in such a way that it contributes toward the maximisation of desirable public health objectives, in this case, obviously the reduction in number of new infections. Public Health agencies should have revamped existing policies demanding that infected people disclose their HIV status to their sex partners to no disclosure required where ‘your viral load is undetectable for 12 months’ or some such figure. This would have dramatically increased the attractiveness of getting tested, of getting infected people discovered in a more timely fashion, getting them treated in a more timely fashion, and ultimately getting their viral load to undetectable in a more timely fashion. The predictable result of this policy change: A significant reduction in new HIV infections. Common sense and Public Health are sadly all too often residing in different realities.
Nothing of this sort occurred during the last few years. HIV infected people with undetectable viral loads were prosecuted for not disclosing their status. Public Health agencies, when given a chance, would disclose their HIV status to their sex partners. The contact tracing Public Health surveillance machine remained in overdrive in countries such as Canada. About 200 carriers of the virus were prosecuted over the years in that country alone. None of this served the public health objective just outlined, and none of this was evidence driven. Rather, it was driven by views on HIV/AIDS that may have had a place in the 1980s to early 1990s when AIDS was considered as a serious public health concern. Today, with negligibly low new infections rates, it is worth asking why HIV remains high on the agenda of Public Health agencies. HIV is clearly not a public health concern in Canada and most other countries of the global north. My suspicion is that the threat of prosecution serves purposes unrelated to HIV, they serve to control consenting adults’ sexual behaviours.
Much is made of the fact that an estimated 1:5 Canadians who are infected with the virus are unaware of their infection. What is typically not mentioned by the same Public Health officials is that they have gone out of their way to make it difficult for Canadians who are HIV infected to find out about their infection. Because the contact tracing government Public Health agencies want to know about each infected Canadian, by name and address, they cannot permit people at risk to test themselves with tests they can conveniently buy down south in the United States in every pharmacy. Unsurprisingly, a different government agency, the drug approval regulator Health Canada, has swung into action and threatened people with prosecution who import and resell reliable, US FDA approved, HIV self-tests into Canada, lest they would find out whether they are infected and Public Health not having their names and addresses on their records. You might not be surprised to learn that while STI testing and treatment is ostensibly free and anonymous at the country's Public Health agencies, in reality patients must show their provincial health insurance cards or else they are out of luck if they carry an STI but fail to provide the said card. The UK's NHS unsurprisingly manages public health in a manner somewhat more focused on infection control than administration.
It is no surprise then that in a country where government surveillance has been prioritised over and at the same time conflated with public health, people at risk of HIV infections remain reluctant to get tested. They have no reason to trust Public Health to act in a timely fashion in response to evidence.
In late 2017, Canada's federal government noticed after much studying what has been known for years about HIV transmission risk and undetectable viral loads. Both federal and provincial justice ministers appear to be finally acting in response to the existing evidence. Prosecutions of HIV infected people with undetectable viral loads who do not disclose their status to their sex partners are likely to be a thing of the past in that country.1
The main lesson I am suggesting we take away from this episode of HIV/AIDS prevention in Canada is to ask that Public Health agencies' policies should be held to public health outcomes, otherwise they serve no purpose. The cavalier approach to civil liberties taken not only by Canada's Public Health agencies, one that was not evidence based for many years, must be replaced by a policy approach based transparently on the latest scientific evidence. A golden rule in most public health ethics documents is that limitations on civil rights (in this case ownership of one's confidential health information) must be justified by significant benefits in public health outcomes, i.e., the public interest. HIV disclosure policies executed by Public Health agencies have failed this test for a very long time. Public Health agencies in Canada in particular have lost trust and support among people at risk of HIV infection because they lost sight of public health outcomes while focusing on Public Health administration and control. A paradigmatic case of how not to implement efficient infection control policies.