Boone trial major setback for HIV prevention, expert says
OTTAWA — The “circus atmosphere” surrounding the case of Steven Boone, who was convicted Wednesday of trying to kill his sexual partners with HIV, is a major setback for the prevention of the disease, says the head of infectious diseases at the University of Ottawa.
Dr. Mark Tyndall, who testified as an expert during the trial, said people should get tested for HIV and that they should disclose positive results to their partners. However, the criminalization of non-disclosure, cemented in a Supreme Court decision on the eve of the trial that all but ensured a conviction, encourages the “exact opposite,” Tyndall said.
Boone, who had unprotected sex without revealing his HIV positive status, was found guilty of attempted murder and administering a noxious substance — his semen — on three other men.
“This just sends a terrible message. Why would you want to know if you could be criminalized, if you could end up in prison for the rest of your life?” Tyndall said.
There are about 65,000 people living with HIV in Canada, but Tyndall said an additional 20 per cent don’t know they’re living with the disease. Add in the fact that many get tested at anonymous clinics — using a number rather than a name — and the likelihood that people will choose not to disclose their status rises, he said.
The Supreme Court ruled in October that those infected with HIV must inform each sexual partner. There is one exception — if the person is being treated and the levels of virus in their blood is so low that the risk of transmission is zero. Even in that case, a condom must be used.
Tyndall is concerned that, in a country where convictions in HIV non-disclosure cases are already on the rise, charges in circumstances where transmission is virtually non-existent will follow.
“With some of the very, very low odds of transmission, having people charged with attempted murder is so far removed from any reality of what this infection means,” he said.
The idea that HIV is a death sentence — emphasized in an attempted murder conviction — fails to recognize the major advances in treatment, Tyndall added.
The AIDS Committee of Ottawa, which provides support, prevention and education services in the city said the verdict “contradict medical science and merely promote fear and hatred.”
“These verdicts have painted Steven Boone, and peripherally all people living with HIV/AIDS, as malicious and toxic,” said the committee in news release.
On the contrary, “if you got infected today, your life expectancy is essentially normal if you get treatment. The treatment is that good,” Tyndall said.
Just ask David Hoe.
“I’ve lived with HIV for nearly 30 years, and I’m not dead,” Hoe said. “I’m 70 next year and I’m as fit as a fiddle.”
Still, Tyndall said “the earlier, the better” when it comes treatment, which means getting tested it key.
Hoe, who has been honoured by the Canadian AIDS Society for his leadership, said the Supreme Court decision is a backwards blow that promotes “a culture of prosecution” around an issue of public health.
“It really, really concerns me that HIV is even considered within the law. If this was any other health issue it would not be being decided by the Supreme Court. It does nothing whatsoever to achieve any understanding about how HIV is transmitted,” Hoe said. “It is, in my opinion, a catastrophe that the Supreme Court was not more enlightened and put themselves in the position of being quasi-medical professionals.”
While HIV “used to be dramatically fatal,” the Boone conviction highlights the lack of understanding that that’s no longer true, Hoe said. “There’s stigma here, there’s fear here, there’s terror here. There’s the fanning of the flames of prejudice and stigma,” he said.
In Tyndall’s experience, people who are HIV positive are extremely concerned about spreading the virus while cases of malicious infection are extremely rare. He’s concerned the high-profile Boone case could lead to a wave of complaints and accusations that will marginalize those with the disease.
“It just sends a chill through the whole community. Everybody who is HIV positive, I’m sure, is looking over their shoulders and wondering if anyone will come forward. It would really send a hush over the community,” he said.