Five months after the case of Nushawn Williams infecting women with the AIDS virus in Chautauqua County became public, health officials, lawmakers and community activists began stepping up their efforts Tuesday to reform the state's AIDS confidentiality laws.
"The time has come to treat AIDS as a public health menace rather than a privacy issue," said Assemblywoman Nettie Mayersohn, D-Queens, sponsor of a bill to require doctors to report the names of people with the HIV virus and to notify their sexual partners of their deadly infection. The legislation, also sponsored by Sen. Guy Velella, R-Bronx, mandates that doctors notify municipal health departments when a patient tests positive for AIDS or HIV, the virus which leads to the disease.
Critics insist the legislation would make people afraid to get tested, but the measure's sponsors say the Williams case and others like it that go unreported will help push action on the bill in the coming months.
The legislation gives a "better chance to maybe prevent some deaths," said Erie County Health Commissioner Dr. Arnold Lubin, one of a number of officials who lobbied here Tuesday for the measure. Lubin also is president of the state Association of County Health Officials.
The bill, its sponsors say, would treat people with HIV like those with other sexually transmissible diseases. If someone tests HIV positive, local health counselors would try to convince the person to give them the names of his or her sexual partners to get them in for testing.
It would not be mandatory, however, for the names of those sexual partners to be turned over to health departments. However, county health departments could still try to independently reach out to the individual's spouse or other known contacts in order to urge them to be tested.
Since HIV is not legally defined as a sexually transmitted disease by New York, the state has no ability to track HIV cases. Only cases of AIDS -- without people being named -- are reported to the state for tracking purposes.
Backers of the bill note that increasingly potent drug treatments are allowing HIV-positive people to delay the onset of AIDS, making early testing vital.
"The earlier someone knows the possibility of exposure or that they have been infected, the earlier therapeutic measures can be started," Lubin said.
"The disease is spreading and we need to identify people who are exposed like we do for tuberculosis, syphilis and other diseases," Assemblywoman Mayersohn said. She said 29 other states have HIV name-reporting requirements.
Critics, however, say that the Williams case would not have even been affected by the measure because Williams did name individuals he allegedly infected.
"It would accomplish nothing, except to heighten the threat of domestic violence and lead people at risk for HIV to avoid early testing and medical treatment, driving the infected and their partners into a state of increased ignorance and even greater danger," said Ronald Johnson, managing director for public policy at the Gay Men's Health Crisis, the nation's largest AIDS organization.
The process also would violate doctor-patient confidentiality rules, said Deborah Small, legislative director for the New York Civil Liberties Union.
"Doctors are bound to maintain confidentiality just like lawyers," she said. "It's a relationship built on trust."