Much more has been learned about HIV/AIDS and how it is spread since 1988, when South Carolina passed a law requiring DHEC to notify schools if a student has the virus. A bill that would eliminate that law deserves support.
The bill, which already has passed the state Senate and is being debated in the House this week, would eliminate the requirement that the Department of Health and Environmental Control notify a school district superintendent and school nurse if a minor tests positive for HIV/AIDS. That is the only disease DHEC is required by law to report to schools.
The law was enacted at a time when health officials were uncertain about how easily HIV could be transmitted and whether it could be spread by casual contact. Since then, research has established that this blood-borne disease is transmitted primarily by sexual contact, shared hypodermic needles or from infected mothers to fetuses, but only rarely by accident.
At the end of 2006, only 113 South Carolinians ages 13 to 19 were living with HIV/AIDS, according to the state health department. That is less than one half of 1 percent of the 208,000 13- to 19-year-olds in the state's public schools.
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One reason this bill was introduced was to spare infected students the stigma they can encounter if word gets out that they have the disease. While the law specifically says only the superintendent and school nurse are to be notified, others in the school often find out.
Critics of the notification law also argue that it offers no real protection to students. Superintendents and nurses are legally prohibited from acting on the information. They can't tell teachers, students or parents, nor can they send the student to a counselor. In effect, the knowledge serves no purpose.
The bill has been justified as useful in the event of an event where bleeding occurs. If fights, collisions on the football field or other mishaps occur, the school nurse would know whether any of the students involved had HIV/AIDS.
But the protocol in such a situation is the same regardless. Any time bleeding occurs, school officials are required to wear gloves. Besides, most students are not going to get tested for HIV/AIDS and are unlikely know whether they are infected. Health experts say nurses should assume that everyone is HIV positive whenever blood is involved.
The current law also presents serious legal hazards for school districts. If private medical information is revealed, anyone involved could be sued.
Some lawmakers have proposed a compromise that would require DHEC to notify superintendents and nurses if a student tests positive for HIV/AIDS or other blood-borne communicable diseases such as hepatitis B and C. But the student's name would not be released. Then, if a fight or other situation occurred, the nurse could contact the state health department to determine if any of the students involved had a communicable disease.
That could be a fair compromise that protects the privacy of the students but also gives school officials information they can use to protect student safety. But the law on the books is inadequate for either purpose.
State policy shouldn't be based on 20-year-old mistaken fears about HIV/AIDS.