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New law modernizes Kentucky statutes related to HIV

 An HIV self-test kit user awaits their results.
World Health Organization
World Health Organization
An HIV self-test kit user awaits their results.

House Bill 349, which the General Assembly passed earlier this year, modernizes a handful of statutes related to the disease. The bill made the distribution of self-test kits legal and eliminated felony charges for people living with HIV attempting to donate organs or other tissue, something the federal HOPE Act did nearly a decade ago.

Kentuckians can now self-test for HIV in the privacy of their own home. The change went into effect Thursday.

The Fairness Campaign – Kentucky’s LGBTQ+ advocacy organization – works to promote comprehensive civil rights legislation in the state that would prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. HIV disproportionately impacts certain members of the LGBTQ+ community because it can spread through anal or vaginal intercourse – in addition to intravenous drug users sharing needles.

Fairness Campaign executive director Chris Hartman said this change gives Kentucky’s laws related to HIV a vital update.

“People living with HIV can live full and healthy lives now and can even reach a status of undetectable – which means that they're intransmissible [and] they can't even transmit the HIV virus to other people,” he said. “Making certain that we're modernizing all HIV-related laws is going to go a long way to finally get to a place where people living with HIV don't experience that type of marginalization and discrimination that so many people have for the past three decades.”

Hartman said Thursday was “a historic day” for Kentucky – a state whose legislators introduced 11 anti-LGBTQ bills, according to an American Civil Liberties Union tracking website.

“Now Kentucky is caught up with the rest of the nation. People living with HIV can donate those life saving organs and other tissue to other people living with HIV,” Hartman said. “It's so rare that we get to celebrate a good law going into effect and this HIV decriminalization law that passed in Kentucky is one of the most progressive that's passed anywhere in the nation this year.”

A.J. Garnett is an Early Intervention Services Prevention and Outreach Manager at LivWell Community Health Services in Paducah, where he conducts HIV and Hepatitis C testing. Though he said antigen or antibody testing conducted at a clinic will get more reliable results, Garnett believes this new law will be a “valuable tool” to get more people to take HIV tests.

“It's good for people who may be normally afraid to be seen going into someplace associated with HIV just because of the stigma against it. This will give them an opportunity to still be tested and still check their status without having to feel nervous about it,” he said. “It's going to show people that [HIV is] just something that some people get. It's very normal to get tested for it and it's pretty easy to treat nowadays as long as we catch it in time.”

If someone tests positive using an at-home kit, Garnett said the key is to not panic.

“It's not the death sentence that it used to be. With modern treatment, we can get the disease under control, it's still not curable,” he said. “But the most important thing is as soon as possible to contact your local clinic … [or] health department, and they'll get you sent where you need to go.”

A flyer with HIV self-testing information for Kentuckians.
AVOL Kentucky
A flyer with HIV self-testing information for Kentuckians.

According to the latest HIV/AIDS Surveillance Report from the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services, HIV diagnoses in the state are on the rise with 350 Kentuckians were diagnosed with HIV in 2021 – the highest total since 2018. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data estimates that 17% of Kentuckians with HIV are unaware of their status.

There are several free and paid resources for HIV testing and treatment throughout Kentucky, including in Paducah, Bowling Green, Owensboro, Louisville, Lexington and Pikeville.

Kentuckians can request free at-home HIV test kits through Together TakeMeHome, a collaboration between Emory University, Building Healthy Online Communities, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, NASTAD, OraSure and Signal.

Hartman said getting to celebrate HB349 was heartening, even as Kentuckians are continuing to watch a ban on gender-affirming care enacted by the legislature this March be litigated in the federal court system.

“Despite these challenges, despite the worst legislative session in history for LGBTQ Kentuckians, we can still find common ground on some issues and work together in a bipartisan way to pass laws that make folks lives better in Kentucky,” he said. “That's exactly what House Bill 349 did by helping destigmatize HIV and AIDS in our Commonwealth and modernizing some of our laws that have frankly been stuck in the 80s.”

VOCAL-KY – which stands for Voices of Community Activists and Leaders of Kentucky – is a statewide grassroots group that advocates for low-income people being impacted by HIV/AIDS, drug use, mass incarceration and homelessness.

Shameka Parrish-Wright, the group’s executive director, said this new law will save lives.

“We all want Kentuckians not only to survive, but thrive. If you give people access and the menu of services that they need, they will make the best choices for themselves,” she said. “So it's really about Kentucky catching up with the science and with everything else that is going on and decriminalizing people who are living with HIV.”

Parrish-Wright’s team distributed free tests in Louisville Thursday at an event alongside several partner organizations that make up the Kentucky HIV Is Not a Crime Coalition and officials, including Democratic U.S. Rep. Morgan McGarvey and Mayor Craig Greenberg. VOCAL-KY plans to continue distributing kits, as well as fentanyl testing strips – which were also decriminalized by a law passed this spring – at its events.

“These kits are a step in the right direction,” she said. “We know that a lot of the legislature legislators understood that this is a serious issue, but to be able to stand with them to be able to celebrate making a life changing decision and show Kentucky that HIV is not a crime was powerful.”
Copyright 2023 WKMS. To see more, visit WKMS.

Derek Operle

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