By: Marcus J. Hopkins, Blogger
The National Viral Hepatitis Roundtable (NVHR), Harm Reduction Coalition (HRC), Center for HIV Law & Policy (CHLP) have released a comprehensive new fact sheet regarding the criminalization of Hepatitis (NVHR, 2018). This issue is one that HEAL Blog has covered a number of times in the nearly five years since we’ve been in publication, and one that is vitally important to those who are living with Viral Hepatitis (VH).
According to the fact sheet, 13 states have laws that specifically target people living with VH by criminalizing the transmission of Hepatitis A, B, and C (HAV, HBV, and HCV, respectively), even in cases where the risk of transmission is so infinitesimal that almost no risk exists. These laws generally adhere to the equally unscientific panic associated with HIV criminalization and are intended to reduce the number of transmissions by way of penalizing people, rather than getting to the root of the issues.
For example – the primary manner in which HCV has been transmitted in the U.S. for much of the past decade is via Injection Drug Use (IDU). According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the prevalence of HCV among People Who Inject Drugs (PWID) is estimated to be 53.1%. Rather than focus on preventing the spread of disease among PWID by funding options that are much cheaper than incarceration – Syringe Services Programs (SSPs), increasing drug treatment facilities and funding, and placing limits on opioid prescription amounts and dosages (to reduce initial addiction) – these states instead decide to focus their efforts on criminalizing behaviors, resulting in higher rates of incarceration – the most expensive option the ensures that the state will have to be exponentially more to house, feed, and inadequately treat PWID.
Some of the scientifically unfounded “infection risks” include spitting, “allowing” someone to come into contact with blood, semen, urine, feces, or other bodily substances (NVHR). The state of Ohio, for example, makes exposure via these methods a Class 3 felony. In January of this year (2018), a man living with HCV was charged with four felonies for spitting at first responders during the course of an arrest (Jankowski, 2018). HEAL Blog covered this specific arrest in the final post of January (Hopkins, 2018). As we noted in January, neighboring Indiana classifies “Spitting While HCV” as Class 5 and/or Class 6 felony battery, depending on the circumstances and, if you can believe it, the disposition of the “offender” (e.g. – if they are rude, angry, or insolent while exposing someone to a bodily fluid).
These criminalization efforts extend beyond the general population, reaching into state and Federal prisons, resulting in far harsher punishment for inmates living with VH. For current inmates charged under HCV criminalization laws, the punishments can extend sentences for any number of years for violations that can stem from simply spitting at a guard – an action that has virtually no chance of spreading HCV.
It is time for more national organizations to stand up to states’ unscientific criminalization of both HIV, and VH. If that means going to court, then, so be it.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2018, April 30). Hepatitis C Questions and Answers for Health Professionals. Atlanta, GA: United States Department of Health and Human Services: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention: Division of Viral Hepatitis. Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/hepatitis/hcv/hcvfaq.htm#Ref09
- Hopkins, M.J. (2018, January 29). Are Hepatitis C “intentional exposure” Criminalization Laws on the Horizon?. Washington, DC: Community Access National Network: HEAL Blog. Retrieved from: https://communityaccessnationalnetwork.wordpress.com/2018/01/29/are-hepatitis-c-intentional-exposure-criminalization-laws-on-the-horizon/
- Jankowski, J. (2018, January 23). Avon Lake man with hepatitis C accused of spitting at Cleveland Police officers. WOIO Cleveland 19 News. Retrieved from: http://www.cleveland19.com/story/37333421/avon-lake-man-with-hepatitis-c-accused-of-spitting-at-cleveland-police-officers
- National Viral Hepatitis Roundtable. (2018, August 21). Punishment is not a public health strategy. Oakland, CA: National Viral Hepatitis Roundtable. Retrieved from: http://nvhr.org/sites/default/files/.users/u34/Criminalization Fact sheet 8.20.18.pdf
Disclaimer: HEAL Blogs do not necessarily reflect the views of the Community Access National Network (CANN), but rather they provide a neutral platform whereby the author serves to promote open, honest discussion about Hepatitis-related issues and updates. Please note that the content of some of the HEAL Blogs might be graphic due to the nature of the issues being addressed in it.