Thursday May 1 2014

Scientists warn on criminalisation clause in HIV Bill

By Agatha Ayebazibwe

Scientists from the Uganda Virus Research Institute (UVRI) yesterday warned on the likely grave consequences that may arise from passing of the HIV/Aids Bill with a clause that seeks to criminalise intentional transmission of HIV.

Tempers flared at a national dialogue which brought together experts in public health, researchers, civil society, Uganda Aids Commision and Members of Parliament to further understand the consequences of the contentious Clause 41 in the Bill.

Some MPs maintained their position, arguing that without the criminalisation of transmission of HIV, the law will be useless and that the penal code is too general hence the need for an HIV specific law.

Dr Peter Mugyenyi, a senior Researcher at Joint Clinical Research Centre said the clause on criminalisation will prevent people from testing for HIV since the clause stipulates that, “a person who knowingly transmits HIV to another person shall be prosecutable”.

“This means that if I don’t know my status, I can’t be prosecuted. Already, we have very few people knowing their HIV status but this clause will work further to stop those who would have voluntarily wanted to know their status,” Dr Mugyenyi said.

Prof Katongole Mbidde of the UVRI noted that the clause will increase the already worrying statistics of HIV drug resistant strain at 12 per cent in the most vulnerable groups like sex workers, fisher folks, etc.

“When we have a law that discourages people from knowing their HIV status, many of them will remain underground, will not seek for health services and therefore will be highly infectious because they are not being treated. But most importantly, these people will harbour the drug resistant HIV strain,” he said, stressing that the cost of treating and managing this type of HIV are enormous.

“What we need as a country grappling with the HIV epidemic are good policies that should encourage people to test freely, access services and be empowered with information to make the right decisions but not laws that seek to prosecute already sick people,” Dr Mbidde said.
Besides, the scientists said proving who infected who, with that particular strain of HIV is impossible in the Ugandan setting.
“Every month that one spends with the HIV virus, it keeps changing.

To be prosecuted, one would need to prove that the purported victim’s virus matches with the virus in the accused’s blood and Uganda cannot afford that kind of technology now,” Prof Mbidde told MPs, asking them to look at the law with reason and not because they are in Parliament to make laws.

But the MPs remained adamant ,saying that Clause 41 of the Bill is what makes it relevant.
The Bill has been tabled in Parliament and is due for debate.