Medical College of Wisconsin Study Finds Awareness of New Jersey HIV exposure law is not associated with reduced sexual risk behavior

Sept. 22, 2012

A study led by the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW) and published online today in the American Journal of Public Health found that New Jersey law requiring individuals with HIV to disclose their HIV-positive status to their sexual partners does not appear to be an effective HIV prevention intervention.

Fifty-one percent of study participants were aware that New Jersey had such a law. However, persons who were aware of the law were just as likely as persons who were unaware of the law to disclose their HIV status, engage in less risky sexual behaviors (such as fewer number of partners), and use condoms. The majority of participants, regardless of being aware or unaware of the law, reported having been in compliance with the law for the previous year – that is, they abstained from sex or they informed their prospective partners of their HIV-positive status.

In fact, 85 percent of participants reported that they would not be willing to engage in unprotected sex with an HIV-negative partner who was not informed of their HIV-positive status.

Awareness of the law was not associated with negative outcomes for HIV-positive study participants. Participants who were aware of the law did not perceive greater social hostility toward persons living with HIV, or experience more discomfort with HIV status disclosure or more HIV-related stigma. Conversely, those who were unaware of the law perceived more social hostility toward persons living with HIV, experienced greater HIV-related stigma and were less comfortable with HIV status disclosure.

Principal Investigator Carol Galletly, JD, PhD, of the Center for AIDS Intervention Research (CAIR) at MCW, and her colleagues surveyed a sample of 479 people in New Jersey who are HIV-positive between March 22, 2010 and October 6, 2010. Participants varied by sex and race: 45 percent of were female, two-thirds were African-American, 16 percent were Hispanic, and 13 percent were Caucasian. The study population ranged from ages 19 to 66. Galletly is an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral medicine at MCW.

The article, “New Jersey’s HIV exposure law and the HIV-related attitudes, beliefs, and sexual and seropositive status disclosure behaviors of a sample of persons living with HIV,” was written by Galletly, along with Laura R. Glasman, PhD, Steven D. Pinkerton, PhD, and Wayne DiFranceisco, MA., all of CAIR.

A majority of U.S. states have enacted laws that regulate the sexual behavior of people living with HIV. Most of these laws require individuals with HIV to disclose their HIV status to prospective sex partners. In New Jersey, violation of the law is a felony. This designation is typical, and some states even require individuals who have violated these laws to register as sex offenders. Wisconsin does not have a criminal HIV exposure law; however, Wisconsin code allows for enhanced penalties for persons who commit certain serious sexual crimes while knowing that they are HIV-positive.

Galletly and her colleagues also asked participants about responsibility for HIV prevention. 90% believed that a person living with HIV bears at least half the responsibility for insuring that an HIV-negative partner doesn’t contract HIV through sex. 34% thought the HIV-positive person has full responsibility.

While these results are specific to New Jersey, several states have enacted similar versions of this law. Researchers are working to compare findings from different states.

Galletly’s research was funded by Public Health Law Research, a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, as well as a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health.

The Center for AIDS Intervention Research at MCW is one of five HIV prevention research centers in the United States funded by the National Institute of Mental Health. CAIR’s missions are to conceptualize, conduct, and scientifically evaluate the effectiveness of new intervention strategies to prevent HIV infection in populations vulnerable to the disease. CAIR’s research also develops improved strategies to promote health and alleviate adverse mental health consequences among persons living with HIV. CAIR is committed to disseminating its findings both to the scientific community and to public health providers so they benefit from Center research.

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