Stigma Trumps Science in South Carolina's Treatment of HIV-Positive Youth

by Alison Mehlman

by Alison Mehlman

Under current South Carolina law (S.C. Code Ann. § 44-29-135), if a minor tests positive for HIV and is attending public school, the superintendent of the school district and the school nurse MUST be notified about the student's HIV status. Supposedly, the purpose of the law is to minimize the risk of transmission by giving school officials the opportunity to have relevant information when situations, such as blood spills, arise at school. The bill (S. 970) would have eliminated that requirement, and instead require that school nurses and other officials, who believe or know that there has been an exposure to bodily fluids between or among students, notify the state department of health and environmental control. The bill also would have required that schools adopt federal recommendations on universal precautions related to blood borne diseases, changing the policy to one based on public health rather than paranoia.

The Governor, however, felt that it was imperative that school nurses know when a student is HIV-positive so that they can take "appropriate steps" to protect others. The problem with this argument is that it fails to acknowledge that there may be people in the school who have HIV (or some other disease, such as Hepatitis A, B or C, all far more easily transmitted) and don't know they have it, which is why federal public health authorities have recommended for decades that schools use universal precautions in any instance of exposure to any bodily fluids. Knowing that someone is HIV positive should not have any effect on how school officials respond to such an incident. More than 25 years into this epidemic, HIV-related stigma and discrimination are still part of many states' policies.  Counter-productive HIV-related policies are alive and well, and violating the privacy rights of an HIV-positive student by sharing the student's confidential medical information with a school will only serve to further efforts to keep HIV-positive people from being equal citizens.