Public Health Raises Concerns over HIV Stigma in Bill to Protect Prison Workers

SB 367 will allow an easier trade of information between physicians when a corrections officer comes into contact with an inmate’s bodily fluid to know if the prisoner carried Hepatitis C or HIV. But a discussion about the risks of HIV and Hep C painted the picture that the prison workers must be quarantined even though their real chance of transmission is low.

The Senate unanimously passed a bill Wednesday designed to protect corrections officers from exposure to HIV or Hepatitis C, but discussion around the bill may have sensationalized the risk of acquiring these diseases.

Senate Bill 367 allows prison physicians to consult with a prison guard’s physician about a prisoner’s HIV and Hep C status if the guard comes into contact with the inmate’s bodily fluids.

Corrections officers represented by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees  testified that fights are commonplace, and some inmates hurl their bodily fluids at the guards to intimidate them.

Under current practice, corrections officers often take a post-exposure prophylaxis drug cocktail if they fear they’ve come into contact with HIV or Hep C. SB 367 would allow their physicians to tell them with greater certainty whether an inmate is carrying the disease.

At the March 7 hearing, corrections officer Roger Ware said that prison officials who come into contact with bodily fluids often have to avoid wives, friends and children until  they are certain that the drug cocktail has run its course.

This comment raised red flags for the Oregon Health Authority’s Public Health Division, which noted that the risk of acquiring HIV or HEP C in this fashion is real but very low, and the further risk of passing it onto loved ones is almost non-existent outside of sex, when condoms should be used.

“Our concern is that this inaccurate statement perpetuates myth and stigma. In fact, besides practicing safe sex, workers taking PEP need not limit any other type of contact with friends, children or other members of their household,” said Jonathan Modie, spokesman for the Public Health Division.

He said not all people who come into contact with bodily fluids should take the prophylactic medication -- just those who come into contact with blood, semen or vaginal fluids. Modie also said the side effects for the prophylactic drugs are much more tolerable than they were in the past and severe side effects are rare. He said people taking the prophylactic can typically resume work while they are still taking the drug.

AFSCME lobbyist Joe Baessler did not respond to an email or a phone call from The Lund Report seeking further clarity into the conditions that corrections officers face.

Sen. Bill Hansell, R-Pendleton, told The Lund Report he did not intend in any way to sensationalize the risk of contracting these diseases, and thought perhaps Ware was referring to the illness that can occur from the result of taking prophylactic medication.

Hansell put forward the bill simply to protect and support corrections officers. “Our corrections officers serve us all in sometimes an unsafe environment,” he said. His district includes two state prisons.

Chris can be reached at [email protected].

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