Improved hygiene and medical advances save lives every day, but the increasing number and severity of infectious diseases in the UK, such as HIV and Hepatitis B and C, are cause for concern in the medical sphere. As strains of these infections develop resistance to drugs, medical professionals are looking to other ways of overcoming the problem. Most patient information is currently confidential, so the introduction of a public register detailing the names of those living with contagious and potentially terminal illnesses could help alleviate the spread of infections and save the lives of potential victims.
Untitled microscopic paintings, 1994 by Mark Francis
This idea is particularly significant when it comes to STIs (Sexually Transmitted Infections). One of the most dangerous is HIV, which, according to the World Health Organisation, has claimed over 34 million lives since its first diagnosis in 1981. With more than a million STIs contracted globally every day, a public register would promote complete transparency, allowing people to look up a potential sexual partner and avoid infection.
A public register of contagious terminal illnesses could also reduce the potential for criminal activity. In 2009, Johnson Aziga, a 52-year-old Uganda-born Canadian, was found to have deliberately infected seven women with HIV, which eventually killed two of them. Aziga was jailed for murder in the first degree by criminal transmission of HIV, the first of many people who have been found guilty of intentionally transmitting their disease to others. Five years later, a female student at Kabarak University in Kenya concealed her HIV-positive status and set out to infect as many men as possible in an effort to exact revenge, following her own diagnosis. She had sex with 324 different men before she confessed online to her actions.
Johnson Aziga's mugshot, 2009. Photo by The Canadian Press
On the other hand, those forced to publicly declare themselves as HIV-positive, or as a victim of another infectious disease, would undoubtedly protest against this apparent invasion of privacy, and against the stigmatising of people for something they may have contracted unknowingly. The existence of a register could also make people less willing to seek diagnosis, leading to delayed treatment and a potentially higher transmission rate.
Despite its advantages, it remains unclear whether this public listing of the terminally ill would actually reduce the number of those infected. Other public registers, for instance the sex offenders register, have certain flaws. An article in The Guardian revealed that 3% of sex offenders in the UK are not on the register at all, while many others avoid it, since a short prison sentence exempts inclusion.
Live HIV, Part of a research at Harvard Medical School, Massachusetts 2016-07 by Taryn Simon
What’s more, an apparent carelessness regarding sexual health suggests a register could be ignored. Journalist Ann Friedman famously described young adults today as the “pull-out generation,” discussing the “increase in risky sex” among strangers, a phenomenon observed by Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett. In fact, a study carried out in the USA by Duke University revealed that 31% of women aged between 15 and 24 had resorted to the “pull-out method” at least once, leaving them vulnerable to the transmission of STIs.
Concerns over privacy, as well as doubts on the effectiveness of a public register complicate the decision to introduce it. The public register could have great potential in reducing transmissions of infectious diseases, but whether a register could be comprehensive, beneficial, and respectful of individuals´ right to privacy is yet to be determined.
Words: Alice Tuffery
Copy edited by: Elena Stanciu