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Garth Rattray | Make mandatory workplace HIV testing illegal

Published:Monday | December 12, 2016 | 12:00 AM

This year, World AIDS Day was on December 1. One of its themes or objectives was, 'Access Equity Rights Now - a call to action to all HIV stakeholders to unite and overcome injustices caused by violence and the exclusion of people on the basis of gender, class, race, nationality, age, geographic location, sexual orientation and HIV status'.

I found the section, 'Overcome injustices caused by HIV status', very relevant to our society because, every now and then, patients request that the results from their mandatory pre-employment/ pre-contract blood investigations be forwarded to me. I am shocked to be still seeing HIV antibody results on several printouts. It irks me that several, perhaps many employers and organisations, are still insisting on this prohibited screening pre-employment or pre-contract blood test. Whether any employee is HIV-positive or not is absolutely no business of any employer or company or organisation.

Obviously, I agree with people doing HIV antibody blood tests on their own to find out their status. Hospitals will do it routinely on admission, but there is an opt-out clause (unless HIV/AIDS is strongly suspected). Nowadays, once someone is found to be producing antibodies to HIV, treatment is started right away. The wait-and-see protocol has been abandoned. No longer must the CD4 cell count fall below an ever-adjusting low before treatment is started. Clinical outcomes are much better if treatment is initiated from the get-go.

Being aware of one's HIV status is essential to reduce the spread of the virus and to safeguard personal health. I know of couples who are designated as people living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA) who, because of treatment, conceive and deliver healthy children naturally. They lead normal lives, just like the HIV- negative population. Generally, PLWHA restrictions include sheaths during intercourse and no donations of blood products, organs or any body tissue. Contact sports, where open wounds could occur, should also be avoided.

As I pointed out in an article several years ago, HIV/AIDS cannot be transmitted through casual contact. It cannot be transmitted during the preparation of food. It cannot be transmitted by contact with tears, saliva, sputum, sweat, urine or even faeces - unless they contain blood. Working alongside PLWHA is perfectly safe because, during the course of everyday social interaction, no one comes into contact with blood, semen, vaginal secretions, synovial, cerebrospinal, peritoneal, pericardial or amniotic fluids.

 

Chronic infectious disease

 

PLWHA are not a burden or liability to any employer. Patients with the condition do not miss work or school more than HIV-negative individuals. HIV/AIDS is now a chronic infectious disease. The Embassy of the United States of America stopped screening immigrant visa applicants for HIV/AIDS years ago. HIV is treatable, but not curable at this time, and HIV/AIDS is covered by the National Health Fund.

The International Labour Organisation Code of Practice on HIV/AIDS and the World of Work categorically states, "HIV/AIDS screening should not be required of job applicants or persons in employment." The Caribbean Tripartite Council/Pan Caribbean Partnership against HIV/AIDS (PANCAP) - Model Caribbean Workplace Policy on HIV/AIDS stipulates under HIV screening, recruitment and employment that "the organisation will not compel an employee or a job applicant to disclose his or her HIV or AIDS status or that of any other person".

In Jamaica, the Office of the Prime Minister, the Office of the Cabinet - HIV/AIDS Workplace Policy (December, 2008), speaks to non-discrimination at the workplace. The Ministry of Labour has a Workplace Policy that was passed in Parliament in February 2010, which clearly states that there should be no workplace HIV-antibody testing (whether for pre-employment screening, pre-contractual screening, for promotions or renewal of work contracts).

Some employers are ignoring the rights of their potential and current employees. They fly in the face of respected international bodies and local authorities. Their actions smack of disdain for the rights of individuals to their privacy. Insisting on HIV antibody testing can serve no purpose than to be used in a discriminatory way - to deny employment, to deny renewal of a contract, to deny promotion or to deny health benefits - all of which are despicable. It's time that our Government drafts legislation to stop this unjust practice.

- Garth A. Rattray is a medical doctor with a family practice. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and garthrattray@gmail.com.