HIV advocates in Victoria say they have strong concerns about proposals to reform the state's Public Health Act contained in a government discussion paper.
The discussion paper, issued for public consultation by the health department on 8 December, is 133 pages long and contains 242 separate recommendations, including increased powers for contact tracers, the removal of mandatory pre and post-test counselling, increased powers to force people to be tested for HIV without their consent, and an end to coded HIV notifications.
Despite the far-reaching nature of the proposals, less than two weeks was allowed for public comment on the proposals. Following representations from the Victorian AIDS Council, the deadline for submissions has now been extended to 30 January 2006.
One of the major concerns is the proposal to end coded notifications for HIV and other notifiable conditions. At present, HIV diagnoses are notified to the health department in a coded form which does not identify the patient; there is concern that the proposed changes to the notification procedure would mean a return to full-name-and-address notifications, something which is likely to act as a disincentive for some people to get tested. The potential withdrawal of mandatory pre- and post-test counselling has also drawn strong criticism, with PLWHAPerson (or People) Living with HIV/AIDS. Victoria vice-president David Menadue calling it “a huge mistake.”
“These counselling sessions are vital in relation to the impact of receiving a positive test [result]. The pre-test discussion increases education around HIV and removing it will only increase the vulnerability of men who may already be in a high-risk category,” Menadue told Victorian gay and lesbian community newspaper MCV.
If the recommendations are adopted, Victorian authorised public health officers will have extraordinary powers, including the power to stop and search individuals, and seize property, after entering a premises (such as a sex-on-premises venue) under the proposed powers. Contact tracers will have the power to demand detailed information from people diagnosed with HIV including names, addresses, telephone numbers and other contact details of anyone the person has had sexual contact with. Failure to comply with such a demand would be an offence.
The Victorian AIDS Council has expressed deep reservations about the discussion paper, warning that if the proposals come into law, Victoria “would be back to where it was in 1984.” The Victorian government has expressed its intention to complete the review and redrafting of the Act by November 2006, with new laws to come into force in 2008. VAC is urging concerned Victorians to make a submission to the review process by the end of January.