In August this year, the UK National Health Service (NHS) announced that it would lift a 20 year ban on HIV positive healthcare workers, such as surgeons, dentists and midwives from practicing in their field. The policy comes into effect in April 2014. The decision was welcomed by scientists, advocates and civil society actors, such as the National AIDS Trust (NAT) many of whom had been actively campaigning on this issue for years. It is also welcomed by the estimated 110 HIV positive healthcare workers in the NHS.
Health care workers are required to be on combination Anti-Retroviral Therapy (ART), have an undetectable viral load, and be regularly tested and monitored.
Due to the to roll out of Anti-Retroviral Therapy the risk of transmission of a person living with HIV who has an undetectable viral load is extremely low. The government says that patients will have more chance of being struck by lightning than being infected with HIV by a health worker who is on ART . There have only been four cases worldwide of HIV being transmitted in a healthcare setting, and these cases were before the availability of ART.
A sure sign of progress is when decision-making by policy makers is based on scientific evidence, rather than outdated rules and attitudes. Many HIV-related policies were designed during the 1980’s, before progress was made in both education and treatment. Deborah Jack, Chief Executive of National AIDS Trust welcomed the policy for being “based on scientific evidence and not on fear, stigma, or outdated information”.
With increased awareness of HIV and treatment, we now know that discriminatory guidelines in today’s context do not protect patients, but instead keep qualified people from moving ahead in their chosen field. The NHS changes will also encourage more people to get tested, with less fear about what the outcome will mean for their lives and careers.
As the NAT statement outlines, “It also sends an important message to young people growing up with HIV telling them they don’t have limitations set upon what they can achieve and become”.
Policy change plays an important part in changing public attitudes. We all have our part to play in working together to improve public understanding and encourage policy makers to support those living with HIV.
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