KAMPALA, 11 May 2010 (PlusNews) - Ugandan AIDS activists have expressed concern over a decision by the Ministry of Health to back an HIV/AIDS bill that would criminalize the deliberate transmission of HIV.
Last week, State Minister for Health in charge of General Duties, Richard Nduhura, appeared before the parliamentary committee on HIV to explain the government's position on the HIV and AIDS Prevention and Control Bill (2009). Nduhura backtracked on his earlier position that portions of the bill would lead to discrimination and undermine the rights of people living with HIV.
"I am in support of the law as it is now," he told IRIN/PlusNews.
Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni has in the past stated that he "fully supports" an HIV/AIDS law that would criminalize deliberate transmission of the virus.
The bill, as well as another controversial proposed law, the Anti-Homosexuality Bill 2009, has led to widespread criticism by human rights activists.
According to Stella Kentutsi, of the National Forum of People Living with AIDS Network in Uganda, the minister's U-turn showed there was still a lack of understanding of its clauses and how they would affect people living with HIV.
"The biggest problem we have with this bill is lack of awareness; we think [Nduhura's] comments were biased and influenced by parliament," she said. "He needs to sit and think carefully, then make a decision that will balance both sides."
Nduhura said he was convinced of his new position, and had not been unduly influenced by members of the parliamentary committee.
The forum has been raising awareness across the country about the bill, which is intended to provide a legal framework for the national response to HIV, as well as protect the rights of individuals affected by HIV. Many of its clauses seek to protect the rights of people living with HIV to healthcare, criminalize discrimination on the grounds of HIV status and uphold the principles of confidentiality and consent.
However, AIDS activists say the parts that criminalize the deliberate transmission of the virus are counter-productive; for instance, the bill outlaws attempted transmission of HIV and recommends life in prison for people found guilty of intentional transmission of HIV. Many activists have questioned how the government would prove deliberate transmission.
The bill further recommends that intravenous drug users, sex offenders and their victims, people charged with offences related to prostitution, and pregnant women and their partners be automatically tested for HIV. If passed, it would authorize medical practitioners to inform, at their discretion, people they felt were at risk of contracting HIV, such as an HIV-positive person's spouse.
"If you push for a more severe or lesser punishment because someone is infected you are discriminating and undermining the rights of people living with HIV," Kentutsi said. "Those who are HIV-infected should not be treated any differently."
The bill is due to be tabled before parliament imminently, and stakeholders will have a chance to put forward their positions on its clauses.
"People should not lose sleep over the bill; that phrase [deliberate transmission] could be dropped or retained - there is still a lot of room to review it," said Chris Baryomunsi, a member of parliament's select committee on HIV.