Opinion

HIV law doesn't work

Gov. Mark Sanford recently vetoed a bill that would have eliminated a state requirement that the Department of Health and Environ-mental Control notify a school superinten-dent and school nurse when a student tests positive for HIV. We think the veto should be overridden.

Sanford, in defending his veto, said DHEC notification is in the best interest of the health and safety of all children. He also noted that the law could be improved by adding two other highly contagious blood-borne diseases, Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C, to the list requiring notification.

We agree that school policy should be designed to protect students against exposure to blood borne diseases. But this policy is both ineffective and potentially counterproductive.

The bill 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 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, according to the state health department. That is less than one half of 1 percent of the 208,000 students in that age group enrolled in state schools.

Some might argue that, even if transmissions are rare among South Carolina teens, there is little harm in notifying superintendents and school nurses. Under the law, however, those officials 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 law 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.

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 and are unlikely to know whether they are infected. Health experts say nurses should assume that everyone is HIV positive whenever blood is involved.

Another concern is that mandatory notification might discourage teens from getting tested. They might worry -- with good cause, according to some school officials -- that despite limiting notification to superintendents and nurses, others in the school will find out about it, and infected students will be stigmatized.

A fair compromise was proposed during the debate over this bill, but it ultimately failed. That proposal would have required DHEC to notify superintendents and nurses if a student tests positive for HIV or another blood-borne disease, but not release the student's name. Then, if a fight or other incident occurred, the nurse could call the state health department to determine if any of the students involved were infected.

That would have protected the privacy of the students but also given school officials information they could use to protect student safety. Unfortunately, the law Sanford seeks to uphold is inadequate for either purpose.

Health regulations need to evolve as we learn more about communicable diseases. State policy shouldn't be based on 20-year-old mistaken fears about HIV.

IN SUMMARY

Legislators should override Sanford veto of law lifting HIV notification requirements.

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