AIDS Patients Are Not Criminals

In Asia, not just a public health issue but one of human rights

L to R: Joanne Csete, Daniel Wolfe, Sara L.M. Davis, Joseph Amon, and Kevin Robert Frost in New York on Dec. 1, 2010.

NEW YORK, December 1, 2010 - People infected with HIV need to be treated as patients rather than as criminals, argued panelists participating in Asia Society's World AIDS Day program. Yet in many Asian countries, outdated taboos have caused the most at-risk populations to be treated as the latter.

Drug users, for example, are often "treated like drugs themselves—something you want to put in one place and keep locked up," argued Daniel Wolfe, director of the International Harm Reduction Development program at the Open Society Foundations.

Other at-risk groups, such as sex workers and men who have sex with men, have experienced similar types of maltreatment and stigmatization in many Asian countries. "It's bad enough if you're an HIV-positive woman and you're automatically thought to be promiscuous," explained Joanne Csete, associate professor at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, "but if you're an HIV-positive woman and a drug user, you're a fallen woman times two."

Like drug use, same-sex behavior is still or was until recently treated as a criminal offense in many Asian countries, making it difficult or impossible for HIV-positive men who have sex with men to seek treatment-something which goes unrecognized by many human rights-oriented donor organizations.

"More than 80 countries around the world criminalize same-sex behavior," noted Kevin Robert Frost, CEO of amFAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research. "In Asia, while we've seen many of those laws begin to fall, we often see donors coming in with a rights agenda that focuses on the human or civil rights context and often misses the HIV vulnerability issue altogether."

As noted by moderator Sara L.M. Davis, executive director of Asia Catalyst, some question whether AIDS in Asia qualifies as a health crisis, given the relatively low rates of infection when compared to southern Africa. Joseph Amon, director of the Health and Human Rights Division of Human Rights Watch, acknowledged that previous predictions of an explosion of the epidemic in Asia were wrong, but warned that the statistics on infection rates in Asia could be misleading.

"One of the reasons the HIV prevalence rates might not be continually increasing is that people are dying, and so new infections are replacing those who are dying, meaning there is less of an apparent increase in the curve."

Reported by Ben Linden