The arrest of a Melbourne man accused of deliberately transmitting HIV has generated national headlines and prompted accusations of mishandling of the case by Victorian public health authorities.
Michael Neal, a 48-year-old Coburg man, has been remanded in custody and faces more than 35 charges, including knowingly infecting another man with HIV, and attempting to infect several others. The charges relate to offences allegedly committed between 2000 and 2006.
He had been the subject of four public health control orders since 2004, requiring him to have only safe sex and stay away from certain locations, but police allege that he ignored these orders, continuing to have unprotected sex and visiting beats, sex-on-premises venues and dance parties, and boasting about the number of people he had infected with HIV.
Following the arrest, Victoria Police made an unprecedented appeal to members of the Melbourne gay community to come forward with additional information relating to the case. A further 11 complainants have since come forward, and police now say that further charges are likely to be laid.
But the Victorian Department of Human Services (DHS) also drew criticism over its handling of the case when it was revealed that the department had been aware of Neal’s activities since 2001, but had not notified police. While the department is not legally obliged to refer such matters to the police, the seriousness of the alleged offences, and the fact that the man had been subject to multiple control orders, drew calls for tighter rules on reporting of unsafe sexual behaviour.
These calls have been rejected by community representatives, who argue that mandatory reporting of unsafe sexual behaviour would likely have a negative effect on public health, because it would discourage testing and treatment and would weaken doctor-patient confidentiality.
There have also been suggestions that the state government could face legal action by the man’s alleged victims, if it could be shown that the DHS failed to take reasonable action to curb his activities or warn others of them. Victorian public health laws already allow the forced detention of people who spread HIV, and questions have been raised about whether the DHS should have made use of those provisions in this case.