Kansas AIDS Patients Safe From Quarantine. Probably.
The Kansas City Star
Ah, the eighties. Remember them? Skinny ties, leg warmers, inadvisably applied hairspray. The years of innocence and Iran-Contra, of such lasting contributions to the culture as Sixteen Candles and the Superbowl Shuffle. Yes, it was morning again in America: the dollar was strong, the Evil Empire was still evil (and an empire), and HIV/AIDS patients were treated with a combination of fear, indifference, and outright hostility. Remember?
The Kansas Senate sure does. They just recently passed a bill that essentially redefines HIV/AIDS as an infectious disease that, according to some readings of the bill, would justify isolation and quarantine of those suffering from it. Now, we will be the first to admit that there are some nasty diseases out there that will gleefully spread themselves with little more than a cough, and indeed the bill addresses some of them: measles, mumps, SARS, tuberculosis and so on. Fair enough. But alongside these legitimately nasty contagious diseases the authors of the bill (the Committee on Health and Human Services) have added HIV/AIDS, which (one would have thought even the Kansas legislature knew by now) are nowhere near the same league in terms of transmissibility.
Now, I’m sure we all know perfectly well that HIV is spread strictly through the transmission of what we shall call here intimate fluids: blood, breast milk, et cetera. In the bill, HIV is essentially lumped in with actual highly infectious diseases and treated the same, despite being plainly different from a medical point of view. Now, the actual intent of the bill in its original form was to allow the state to order health care workers in certain fields to undergo blood testing in order to detect and arrest infection caught in the regular performance of their job. Unfortunately, it makes note of existing policy that allows the Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE) to determine whether a disease is suitably infectious and, if so, order isolation and/or quarantine. This has caused much raising of eyebrows and led to the current worries—now working their way through the national press—that Kansas was preparing to round up AIDS patients and truck them off to a quarantine camp somewhere.
Over the last couple days, the KDHE has swung into spin mode, trying to get the word out that barbed-wire fences are not in the Department’s future. “It is not and never was the state’s intent to seek the authority for isolation or quarantine of persons related to HIV,” explains Charlie Hunt, an epidemiologist with KDHE, “It is not and never was the state’s intent to seek the authority for isolation or quarantine of persons related to HIV.” All well and good, we’re sure, and heaven knows laws never get exploited beyond their original intent.
But that does bring forth the question: if it is known and understood that HIV/AIDS aren’t infectious in the same league as the aforementioned diseases, then why is it getting lumped in with them? Currently the three main causes of HIV infection are down to sexual activity, needle sharing by drug users, and childbirth to an infected mother. And while any one of those three is liable to land you in a hospital, it is unlikely to say the least that a health worker or first responder would actually be participating in any of them in the course of their daily work (if they are, then something somewhere has gone horribly wrong).
Look, it’s entirely believable that this bill was written with the best of intentions. And yours truly is not prepared to believe that the Kansas legislature—even this Kansas legislature—is involved in a nefarious plot to round up the undesirables. But good intentions or not, this bill is just ambiguous enough to give thinking people the willies, and merely stating what the intent of the bill is or is not is a far cry from enforcing what it ends up as or how it gets used by a sufficiently creative person in authority.
The legislature, mindful of the problematic nature of the bill, has put a conference committee together to thrash out the more troublesome language of the bill. Here’s hoping when they reconvene on Monday that they take a long, hard look at the language of the bill, the possibilities open for creative misuse thereof, and seriously consider whether HIV victims need to be treated with the same fear and misunderstanding as when the disease first reared its head over 30 years ago.