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Spreading HIV: Convicted prostitutes must be tested and tracked

Published May 5, 2008 6:39 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2008, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

In 1993, well into the second decade of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the Utah Legislature belatedly sprang into action. But instead of teaching contraception in the public schools, or handing out condoms in clubs and on college campuses, state lawmakers pursued the crime and punishment angle of HIV prevention.

Changes enacted to the criminal code required HIV testing prior to sentencing for all persons arrested for prostitution or patronizing a prostitute, and made prostitution and solicitation a felony offense for repeat offenders who were aware they had tested positive for HIV.

While they didn't do all that they could to stop the spread of the AIDS virus, lawmakers took a significant step. The rates of recidivism are extremely high among customers and practitioners of the oldest profession, and a properly administered program could deter the Typhoid Marys of the sex trade. But, 15 years later, it's not happening.

Earlier this year, Latisha Patwardhan was charged with prostitution with the HIV enhancement. Her case is just the second time in the past five years that someone has been charged with the crime.

A rare offense? Perhaps, but the evidence seems to indicate that the tests aren't always conducted, and that police and prosecutors are unaware when repeat offenders have previously tested positive for HIV. The Patwardhan case points to a lack of proper reporting, record-keeping and adherence to a law that could, if combined with education and counseling, be an effective deterrent to the spread of the HIV virus.

This was Patwardhan's sixth prostitution-related conviction. She tested negative for HIV after her first arrest in 2002, but wasn't tested again until after her fourth conviction in 2007, when she was found to have contracted HIV.

So, how long was Patwardhan working with HIV? How many of her customers contracted the potentially deadly virus, which can be easily transferred by persons engaging in unsafe sex? And, more importantly, how many more prostitutes are plying their trade, unaware they've been infected?

This failure to conduct tests is not an isolated case. Court documents from 2006 and 2007 indicate no record of HIV tests on nearly 40 percent of the persons convicted for prostitution and solicitation. Equally discouraging is the lack of a centralized database where positive results can be entered for access by law enforcement agencies and prosecutors across the state.

The courts need to establish a database, and assure that the tests are conducted. It's a good law, but only if it's followed to the letter.