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Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2008 01:39 am

The principle, not the principal

Legislature reconsiders mandatory-reporting laws for students with HIV/AIDS

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Rep. Sara Feigenholtz, D-Chicago
Untitled Document It’s difficult enough these days to get through high school without having your peers and teachers slap a label on you: Prep. Goth. Emo. Nerd. Jock. But “HIV-positive”? For 20 years in Illinois, whenever a young person tests positive for the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, state health officials have been required, under the state’s Communicable Disease Prevention Act, to notify the principal of the school where the student is enrolled. Advocates for children living with HIV/AIDS believe that the law discourages students from finding out their status. They are supporting legislation introduced earlier this month by state Rep. Sara Feigenholtz, D-Chicago, that repeals the rule, which not only requires that principals be notified but also allows them to disclose students’ identities and HIV/AIDS status to school nurses, teachers, and other school officials. Only Nevada, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Missouri have similar school reporting mandates. Cathy Krieger, chief executive officer of The Children’s Place, a Chicago-based organization that assists kids affected by HIV/AIDS and their families, says that the original law was passed at a time when little was known about HIV/AIDS and how HIV is transmitted. “It’s time to start basing policy on medical science and not on fear,” she says. “How many adults would get tested if they knew their boss would be told their status?”
Krieger says that the increasing rate of HIV infection among adolescents particularly demonstrates the necessity of removing barriers to testing. Her group cites Illinois Department of Public Health data, released in the fall, showing a 60 percent spike in HIV cases among people under the age of 24 since 2000. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ranks Illinois sixth nationally in overall HIV/AIDS infection rates. In addition, according to the IDPH, more than 3,000 cases of HIV had been reported in Illinois as of December 2004 among people ages 20 to 29 — people who are likely to have contracted the virus as adolescents. “There’s already a stigma attached to the disease itself — maybe not as much as there used to be, but it’s still there,” says Jonna Cooley, executive director of the Phoenix Center in Springfield. Cooley says she doesn’t see the benefit of principal notification, pointing out that school nurses, who are usually informed about student-health issues such as food allergies and what prescription medicines their charges are taking, should be taking all necessary precautions anyway.
Sean Rose, a prevention specialist at the Phoenix Center, which conducts both anonymous and confidential testing for HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, says that “any barrier to testing that can be eliminated should be. “Most people opt for anonymous testing because they’re afraid their name is going to end up on a list somewhere,” Rose says. Identifying people who are HIV-positive leads to a false sense of security, says Krieger: “The fantasy is, we know who the person is that’s positive and if we’re very careful around this person then we’ll all be OK.”
The House Human Services Committee meets this morning (Thursday, Feb. 21) to consider Feigenholtz’s proposal, House Bill 4314.

Contact R.L. Nave at rnave@illinoistimes.com.
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