14 May 2014

Uganda: Fear for HIV Response As Uganda Set to Criminalize Virus Transmission

Photo: Aidspan
A HIV positive homosexual man has his blood pressure checked at a VCT clinic supported by the Global Fund via the Kenyan Red Cross (file photo).

Activists warn that the passing of Uganda's controversial HIV bill, which criminalizes deliberate or attempted transmission of HIV, delivers a major blow to human rights and the country's response to the virus.

Parliament passed the HIV and AIDS Prevention and Control Billon on 13 May. If enacted into law by President Yoweri Museveni, those found guilty of "willfully and intentionally" transmitting HIV will be subject to fines and jail terms of up to 10 years.

The legislation opposed by activists and health experts obliges a person suspected of the sexual offense to be subjected to HIV testing, mandatory testing for pregnant women and their partners as well as allowing health workers to disclose a patient's HIV status to those considered at-risk.

Rising HIV in Uganda

Dennis Odwee, executive director of Action Group for Health, Human Rights and HIV/AIDS Uganda, said: "The bill only increases trouble to this country towards reducing HIV and AIDS prevention. Clients will not be able to utilize HCT [HIV counseling and testing] services since they will fear to be criminalized."

In a statement on 14 May, the International Community of Women Living with HIV, Eastern Africa, said: "The passage of the HIV Prevention and AIDS Control Bill represents a dangerous backslide in Uganda's efforts to respond to HIV. While the bill may have been intended to facilitate and improve the HIV response in Uganda, the bill contains many poorly conceived and fear-induced provisions that have no place in a public health and human-rights-based response to HIV.

"As passed, this bill will actually weaken Uganda's HIV prevention efforts and will have a detrimental and disproportionate impact on the rights of women and girls and in particular women living with HIV."

Uganda's HIV prevalence rate has risen to 7.3 per cent from 6.4 per cent in the past five years, according to health ministry statistics. Health officials, activists and non-governmental organizations believe the bill will undermine efforts to reduce rising HIV infections.

Milly Katana, a long-term HIV activist and one of the board members of the Global Fund to Fight HIV, Tuberculosis and Malaria, said: "All I can say now is doomsday has landed on all the people of Uganda. You will see fewer and fewer people testing."

Dr Kenneth Omona, chairperson of the parliamentary health committee, said: "Some of us [committee members] had opposed the criminalization clause in the bill. However, we were overpowered. We already have laws in the country that cover intentional and attempted acts. Singling out HIV for criminalization will reactivate stigma and discrimination."

In support of the bill

Medard Bitekyerezo, the deputy chairperson of the health committee believes the proposed law will reduce deliberate and attempted transmissions.

"There is nothing controversial and contentious about this bill. The people fighting and criticizing this bill are those who are intending to deliberately attempt to infect others with the virus," said Bitekyerezo.

"If you are not intending to willfully transmit HIV or attempt to, then why should you get scared of this bill? The bill is intended for protection. If you are caught for rape, why can't you be subjected to an HIV test? We need to know your status in order to protect the victim [by providing post-exposure prophylaxis] if you are HIV positive," he said.

International funding for HIV slashed

In Uganda, 1.5 million people are living with HIV and more than 150,000 people are becoming HIV positive every year, according to Uganda AIDS Commission and Ministry of Health statistics.

Several donors have already slashed or suspended aid to Uganda in protest over President Museveni's enactment of a draconian anti-homosexuality bill on 24 February.

Project and budget support worth about US$140 million has been suspended or redirected by the World Bank, US and several European countries, including Sweden, the Netherlands, Norway and Denmark.

Omona believes more people need to speak out against the new bill. He said: "We have to campaign for the president not to assent to bills like this. Local, national and global partners like United States Centre for Disease Control, UNAIDS, and PEFPAR will not be comfortable now dealing with us with these kind of laws."

Controversial legislation

Dr Alex Ario, national coordinator of Uganda's AIDS Control Programme at the ministry of health, said: "There is need to repeal HIV-specific criminal laws, laws directly mandating disclosure of HIV status and other laws which are counterproductive to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support efforts, or which violate the human rights of people living with HIV and other vulnerable groups."

The bill is also controversial for contravening the East Africa's Legislative Assembly regional HIV and AIDS Bill passed in April 2012 that pressed member states with HIV criminalization clauses to amend their legislation.

Three of East Africa Community's five partner states - Burundi, Kenya and Tanzania - already have laws criminalizing HIV transmission of HIV. As Uganda looks set to join them it leaves Rwanda as the sole country to respect the human rights of people living with HIV.

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