By Elias Biryabarema
KAMPALA (Reuters) - Uganda has made it a crime to "wilfully and intentionally" transmit the HIV virus and made it legal for medical staff to disclose a patient’s HIV status to others without his or her consent.
The law was passed on Tuesday, a parliamentary spokeswoman said, in response to a resurgence in HIV infections in a country that was once hailed as a success in the global fight against AIDS. Those convicted face up 10 years in prison.
But rights activists said the law would deter voluntary testing and further stigmatize infection with HIV, which causes AIDS and is primarily transmitted through unprotected intercourse as well as from mother to child during pregnancy.
"Evidence from the Ugandan Ministry of Health shows clearly - criminalization of HIV doesn't work," said Asia Russell, Uganda-based director of international policy at Health GAP, an HIV advocacy group.
"It drives people away from services, and fuels discrimination and fear."
Uganda had managed to cut infection rates from 18.5 percent of the population in 1992 to about 5 percent in 2000, according to United Nations figures. But the Ministry of Health puts the current rate at about 7.3 percent.
While HIV sufferers in developed countries can have near-normal life expectancy thanks to anti-retroviral drugs, rather than dying within perhaps a decade, this medication is too expensive for many in Africa. According to the United Nations, in 2011 only 54 percent of eligible Ugandan HIV sufferers were receiving anti-retrovirals.
The government argues that the "HIV and AIDS prevention and control bill", first put forward in 2010, is needed to cut infection rates and reinforce other government measures to combat HIV/AIDS.
But activists say that, in addition to violating rights to confidentiality, the law will be hard to enforce as it can be very hard to determine which of two HIV-positive people infected the other.
They also note that the law does not appear to spell out what constitutes "wilful and intentional" transmission, and whether this would specifically exempt someone who had sex without knowing that they were HIV-positive, or who used a barrier such as a condom.
Russell said her group would petition President Yoweri Museveni not to sign the bill into law unless parliament removed the provision criminalizing transmission of HIV.
"This HIV bill is yet another step backward in the fight against AIDS in Uganda, said Maria Burnett, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch.
"It is founded on stigma and discrimination and based on approaches that have been condemned by international health agencies as ineffective."
(Reporting by Elias Biryabarema; editing by Drazen Jorgic and Kevin Liffey)