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Updated Virginia laws aim to end HIV stigma

Updated: Apr. 4, 2021 at 7:54 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (WVIR) - Virginia is modernizing its HIV exposure laws, with Governor Northam signing SB1138 in an effort to end the stigma around the disease.

SB1138 updates Virginia’s “infected sexual battery” statute, now requiring a heavier burden of proof regarding the intent to transmit HIV, actual transmission and diagnosis before charging someone with a crime.

Dr. Rebecca Dillingham, director of the Ryan White HIV Clinic at the University of Virginia, works with hundreds of people living with HIV. She said the updated legislation aligns with scientific updates to treatment of HIV, which, in itself, should be seen as a public health issue, not a crime.

“The changes in the laws decriminalizing HIV are an incredibly important first step in ending discrimination and lessening the stigma experienced by people living with HIV,” Dillingham said. “HIV right now is like, should be like, living with diabetes or high blood pressure. It shouldn’t be different than that.”

The bill makes it legal for Virginians with HIV to donate blood, tissue or organs. It also makes testing optional for those convicted of certain crimes like prostitution or drug use.

Equality Virginia Executive Director Vee Lamneck said the updated legislation is a big step, especially for marginalized communities at higher risk.

“What this bill helps us do is actually create an environment where people want to, and have access to, testing and prevention and treatment services,” Lamneck said.

Despite the progress, it still lists infected sexual battery as a Class 6 felony penalty.

“What we know is that by lowering that penalty down to a Class 1 misdemeanor, it actually helps to decrease stigma and discrimination affiliated with the criminalization of this public health issue,” Lamneck explained. “By lowering that penalty, we’re actually helping to address the core of this public health issue in increasing the comfort and ease in folks accessing the treatment they need.”

Both Dillingham and Lamneck said, still, the bill is a good starting point.

“People living with HIV is not a danger to anyone. Embracing them in our families and communities is something that we should do just as we would with compassion and love with anyone else living with a chronic disease,” Dillingham said.

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