Busting the myths around HIV

Those old enough to remember the 1980s will recall the terrifying TV advertisements which warned of the risk of HIV, with graphic depictions of tombstones. The fear and stigma this provoked

is deep rooted and endures to this day. And too many officers have experienced someone attempting to ‘weaponise’ the virus by spitting or biting and claiming to have HIV.

The chances of acquiring HIV through

spit or a bite are practically nil, and no police officer has ever acquired it in this way. However, Avon and Somerset Police provoked a storm in November 2017 when a senior officer justified a roll-out of spit and bite guards, saying: “Each day we face being spat at, putting us at risk of HIV, hepatitis and tuberculosis.” The Force was criticised by people living with HIV and charities, and responded by introducing training for its officers. One custody sergeant who attended, Fed rep Simon Lancey, said: “Knowledge is power and since doing the training I’m able to ask the people I book what drugs they are taking and what clinic they are with. When they come up blank you know the chances are that they have not got HIV.”

Mr Lancey makes a point of educating colleagues when misconceptions arise. “Even if somebody spat in your mouth – which is a disgusting thing to happen – even if they had HIV the chances of you getting it are zero. Even with a needle stick injury there is no risk. I tell them this and it helps to relieve some of the stresses,” he said. HIV, if left untreated, attacks the

immune system. AIDS is the most advanced stage of an HIV infection when the immune system can no longer fight infections. Effective treatment means that HIV is no longer a death sentence,


• HIV cannot be transmitted through spitting, sharing utensils, urine or contact with a discarded needle.

• There is a negligible risk of acquiring HIV through a bite and no evidence of a frontline worker having obtained HIV infection through a biting injury in the UK.

• HIV and AIDS are not the same. If HIV is caught early and is treated, it will not lead to AIDS. AIDS is very uncommon in the UK thanks to effective HIV treatment.

• People living with HIV on effective treatment can live full and productive lives with normal life expectancy.


and 87 per cent of people living with HIV are undetectable, meaning they cannot pass the virus on. DC Tracy O’Hara QPM of

Merseyside Police has made it her mission to warn other forces to avoid similar pitfalls to Police Scotland, which got into hot water this year for storing information on their computer system about HIV status. She said: “These markers should only be on a custody record health assessment and even then, only available to those who need to know this information. So, if someone says, ‘I live with this condition and I need my medicine’ that should be on the record, but HIV status is not something the police service should be disclosing nor holding as warning markers or flags.” Tracy added: “If an officer gets bitten

and sees that the person who did it has HIV and thinks ‘am I going to die?’ we need them to know that the risk is so low. There are only three ways you would be infected – needle sharing, sexual intercourse and breastfeeding.” Simon Kempton has led on the issue of communicable diseases for the Police Federation of England and Wales. He commented: “The act of spitting at a police officer is vile, disgusting and particularly during a global pandemic carries risks of transmitting other diseases. But we know from decades of research that it’s impossible to transmit HIV by that method, and people who threaten us with that only increase that feeling of fear and stigma. “The Federation has been doing a

lot of work to try to address the stigma that’s attached to HIV, to help colleagues understand the true risks of transmission and deal with the fear factor that’s been built in unnecessarily. PFEW has been

Simon Lancey

working with the National AIDS Trust and Public Health England to help educate and support colleagues. Knowledge is power and helping officers to understand how negligible the risks are is important to their mental health after being assaulted.” World AIDS Day on 1 December is an

opportunity to show support for people living with HIV, and to remember those lost to the virus. At recent estimates, there were 103,800 people currently living with HIV in the UK.

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