Tomorrow – World AIDS Day – is special for people living with HIV/AIDS. It’s special, because 30 years ago the U.S. Centers for Disease Control reported the first cases of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, a malady once seen as tantamount to a death sentence. Twenty-seven years ago scientists isolated the cause, the human immunodeficiency virus. Science has made tremendous progress in treating and understanding AIDS and HIV in the last 15 years, enabling HIV positive people to lead healthy lives and giving hope for stemming the epidemic. Still, fear and ignorance and their progeny – bad law and prejudice – remain, and 1.2 million Americans living with HIV/AIDS are paying the price.

Federal funding pressures and hysteria over the rare instances of individuals maliciously infecting others have prompted two-thirds of the states, including Iowa, to pass criminal laws – mostly in the 1990s – related to HIV exposure. Since then, medical and legal experts increasingly believe these laws serve no useful purpose and may do more harm than good. The public knows little about the laws or their consequences for the lives of millions of people. Iowa, where the incidence of HIV/AIDS is relatively low, has zealously prosecuted cases under its criminal HIV statute, which carries penalties of up to 25 years in prison.

Today and tomorrow, IowaWatch and Iowa Public Radio are launching a project that we hope will ease those fears, and answer questions. We start with an introductory package that looks into controversial criminal laws regarding HIV transmission. This package is a prelude to a three-part series scheduled for early next year that will consider legal, public health and human rights dimensions of this extremely complex issue.

Our reports will explain the origins of HIV-specific laws that subject individuals who know but fail to disclose their HIV-positive status prior to intimate contact to criminal prosecution; offer stories of individuals and their families who have had to negotiate the many ambiguities and harsh penalties posed by these laws; and explain why a movement is growing in Iowa, across the country and worldwide to decriminalize HIV exposure.

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