The man dubbed the 'HIV predator' had his name and face splashed all over New Zealand's media today in what has become the biggest criminal HIV transmission case in NZ history. There are now seven complainants (six men, one woman) of whom five are alleging that the man was source of their HIV infection.
As well as his name and several photos, today's report on GayNZ.com includes many of the details left out of their earlier reporting, including his online dating profile nicknames and the name of the street he lived on in Auckland. They also highlight that HIV testing centres are anticipating a rise in HIV testing today and over the weekend as people recognise the man. But surely this is as much a 'fishing expedition' as a public health warning.
Today's story on TVNZ.com includes a quote from Bruce Kilmister, chief executive of NZ's PLHIV organisation, Body Positive
[Kilmister] said the alleged charges significantly changed a lot of people's lives. "Everybody who has had an association with him in the past should come forward for a test. But it's also a timely reminder that everybody has a responsibility to keep themselves safe and follow safe sex practice. HIV positive people have an added responsibility not to transmit the virus, and the best way they can do that is to have safe sex."To put the case into perspective, according to data from New Zealand's Ministry of Health (AIDS New Zealand Issue 63 – March 2009 ) only 184 people were newly diagnosed with HIV in 2008 – of whom 91 were acquired via sex between men, but only 70% of these were acquired in New Zealand, most of whom lived in Auckland – and this was the highest number ever recorded. Since there are now five gay men (aged between 17 and 31) who claim the accused man infected them, this 'cluster' alone would represent around 8% of new diagnoses.
Adding to the panic is the 19 year-old female complainant (who has not tested positive). Between 1999-2008 there were only 52 women diagnosed with HIV that was heterosexually acquired in New Zealand. The TVNZ article continues
The fact a woman had allegedly been affected raised concerns the virus may have spread into the heterosexual community. "The reality is that most women think of the pill as the beginning and end of safe sex. It needs to be a message that goes right across the broad spectrum," [said Kilmister.]
If this man is the source of five (or possibly more) infections, this certainly is a public health concern, and the criminal justice system involvement is, indeed, a result of the failure of public health. The call for new and better public health laws in New Zealand are understandable, and certainly would be better than the current system which required media and CJS intervention.
However, last year the NZ Ministry of Health published a study examining HIV prevalence in New Zealand, both diagnosed and undiagnosed (AIDS New Zealand Issue 62 - November 2008) which found a prevalence of 4.4% amongst men who have sex with men attending sexual health clinics, of whom only half were diagnosed. Undiagnosed people can't disclose – and cannot be publically (or even privately) named and shamed as a way to warn others about specifically avoiding them. Undiagnosed people may also be having as much – or more – 'promiscuous' sex as the so-called 'HIV predator'.
Earlier in the week, TVNZ ran an in-depth look at the case and interviewed Michael Stevens, the man who orginally brought the allegations to GayNZ.com and Simon Harger-Forde, director of HIV prevention at New Zealand AIDS Foundation. It makes for uncomfortable viewing by making patient confidentiality appear to be something bad, and conflating two issues (non-disclosure resulting in HIV exposure or transmisison being a criminally liable act and the lack of an effective public health response) without any examination of the issue of shared responsibility for sexual health. Only at the very end does Mr Harger-Forde say that laws don't protect anyone, and that everyone should be using condoms.
Finally, an interesting blog posting from a feminist commentator, which highlights other concerns - that this case will end up leading to further stigmatisation of gay men and people living with HIV in New Zealand, and concludes:
Safe sex is crucial, of course, but it's also crucial that the ... case doesn't become an exercise in victim-blaming, with homophobic overtones. And it's also important that [his] behaviour doesn't prompt a backlash against HIV positive people, who have the same needs for affection, companionship and intimacy as the rest of us.