Ugandan Policies Could Lead to HIV Crisis

Once the nation that led Africa's battle against HIV and AIDS, Uganda has made two key moves to criminalize those living with disease.

Last week, Ugandan President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni signed a law that sentences anyone who commits a “homosexual act” to life in prison. An openly gay person with HIV can be further charged with “aggravated homosexuality,” according to the AIDS & Rights Alliance for Southern Africa (ARASA). Anyone who does not report a known gay person can also be charged with a crime.

Dr. Joel Gallant, chair of the HIV Medicine Association (HIVMA) and associate medical director of the Southwest CARE Center in Santa Fe, called the situation “horrendous” in an interview with Healthline.

“I've worked in Uganda, taken care of patients in Uganda, know a lot of gay people in Uganda,” he said. “It's really troubling, not only from a human rights angle but also in terms of public health.”

Meanwhile, an HIV-positive nurse in Uganda who accidentally pricked her finger while trying to give a squirming child an injection in December is on trial for “negligent act likely to spread infection of a disease,” according to a news release by New York-based human rights group AIDS-Free World.

HIVMA, Association of Nurses in AIDS Care, and International AIDS Society also released a joint statement last week expressing concern over the incident's impact on “the global fight against HIV/AIDS.”

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Child Tests Negative

The incident involving the nurse occurred at Victoria Medical Centre in Kampala. According to the statement, 64-year-old Rosemary Namubiru washed and bandaged her pricked finger afterward. Then she returned to the 2-year-old child and administered an injection.

It is not clear whether she used the same needle with which she pricked her own finger, but Gallant said that is not the issue.

“This kind of criminalization, legally and in the press, no matter what the outcome of the case, she is in big trouble because of the publicity that has occurred," he said. "It's just a disaster for her personally.”

The child tested HIV-negative.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 99.7 of needlestick exposures to HIV-positive blood do not result in infection. Given that the woman was on medication to prevent the spread of HIV, the likelihood may be even less. 

Gallant said that the case also sets a dangerous precedent. Given the prevalence of HIV in sub-Saharan Africa, there are many HIV-positive health care workers. Two out of every 25 people in Uganda have HIV, according to UNAIDS.

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Homophobia Running Rampant

Between the two incidents, the prospect of HIV-positive refugees fleeing to other nations is real, Gallant said.

“This will drive people away from health care," he said. "Uganda at one time had a more enlightened government and was a model in terms of HIV prevention, and now they're turning 180 degrees in the opposite direction.”

Another concern is the fact that other African nations such as Nigeria and Gambia have followed suit, Gallant said. He fears that as homophobia spreads across Africa like wildfire, nations will try to “one up” each other in terms of criminalization.

“It started with U.S. evangelicals going to Uganda," he said. "Before that this was not on the radar screen.”

Gallant said that he hopes the United States and other countries will begin to hold non-humanitarian aid to Uganda. On Thursday, the World Bank postponed a $90 million loan to the country's health system because of the anti-gay policy.

On Friday, Scottish authorities said they'd offer asylum to Ugandans being persecuted under the new law, according to The Herald.

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