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An Inhibition to HIV Prevention
While Allies Linked for the Prevention of HIV and AIDS--a nonprofit HIV prevention organization--does not usually step into the policy arena, Matt Eldredge, interim president, believes the disclosure statute actually inhibits the state's ability to lower HIV infection rates.
"We're so backward in Idaho," Eldredge said. "There's never been a documented case of transmission [through saliva or urine]," he said. "It's impossible."
Thomas agrees that if the legislative intent of the statute was to lower new cases of HIV, it's demonstrably not working.
"If our intent is to stop the spread of the disease, I think there is a body of evidence that would support that this type of statute in general is counterproductive," Thomas said, adding that those who didn't know their HIV status are barred from prosecution.
"It's not a stretch to understand that this type of law discourages you from getting tested [for HIV]," he said.
Thomas said if he didn't get tested and learn his HIV status, it's possible he would have never faced prosecution. He'd be a free man.
"It seems to me [the law] is talking about that guy, the one who wants to infect someone with this illness," Thomas said.
According to the CDC, approximately one in five people living with HIV in the United States does not know he or she is infected, thus they are not medicated and therefore more likely to infect others. Eldredge said that studies have shown that after initial infection with the AIDS virus, a patient's viral load skyrockets as the body scrambles to figure out how to fight it.
"Then the viral load lowers and plateaus," he said with a dip of a flat hand moving in the air in front of him.
The body's natural lowering of the viral load makes a patient still infectious, but not nearly as infectious if he or she were to get tested and treat the HIV with medication to reduce viral replication.
Eldredge and others who want to see non-disclosure decriminalized firmly believe that disclosure is not necessary if a person has an undetectable viral load and a condom is used.
Ultimately, Eldredge believes the largest problem with the HIV disclosure statute and HIV prevention in general is a lack of education.
"There's a lot of fear [regarding HIV] in this state," he said.
According to Eldredge and Thomas, there is no effort to have the HIV disclosure law in Idaho either amended or repealed, and no legislation to do so has been considered by a legislative committee since the statute was first passed.
Today, Thomas' case is still in the appeals process. He has served nearly four years at the Idaho State Correctional Center, where he has proper medical care, including expensive daily medications to keep his HIV viral load undetectable.
He lives in the general prison population and works as a janitor to earn money for phone calls to his son and assorted essentials.
While Thomas regrets the circumstances that brought him to where he is, including engaging in a sexual relationship before first admitting his status, he wishes most that he had been more of a leader and role model in the fight against HIV discrimination and criminalization.
His advice to individuals in Idaho: "Get tested, No. 1. It's so empowering to know what your status is. The more you know about HIV, the less stigma, the less fear that will be associated with it. Learn as much information as possible."
As far as those who are HIV positive and want to be in a relationship, Thomas acknowledges he didn't do the right thing: being upfront about his HIV status. "You have to be 100 percent open with your partner."
Editorial note: Taylor Craig Newbold is a former founding board member of Allies Linked for the Prevention of HIV and AIDS.