A controversial law that would compel people to undergo a blood test if they spit or bite police officers and other public servants has been criticised by leading disease specialists for its potential to stigmatise marginalised communities, while also doing little to protect exposed workers.
A parliamentary inquiry is examining the NSW Government’s Mandatory Disease Testing Bill, which if passed will allow police officers to obtain a blood sample in situations where they are attacked by an assailant using bodily fluids.
The Berejiklian government introduced the bill in 2020 with the intention of helping workers recover vital information about what risk, if any, they may face from their exposure to saliva, blood, bites and other injuries.
Unions representing the state’s police officers and prison officers spoke in support of the legislation on Thursday and cited examples where assailants had bitten into their cheek to mix blood with their saliva, increasing the perception of risk to the exposed officer.
They said the bill would ease the high levels of anxiety workers face during these encounters on the streets, in hospitals and correctional settings.
“Offenders are using syringes as weapons, spitting mouthfuls of blood, or flinging/smearing bodily fluids to harm emergency service workers,” the Police Association of NSW said in its submission to the inquiry.
Statistics provided to the hearing stated that police officers encounter an average total of 450 incidents each year of bodily-fluid exposure. For prison officers the yearly average is roughly 130 incidents; for NSW Health workers the number amounts to more than 2,000 incidents.
“Test results will be highly useful information for the risk assessment and decisions regarding the treatment the emergency service worker will continue with,” the Association said.
But the inquiry also heard on Monday from health officials and disease specialists who cited serious concerns with the bill.
They said it would have a negligible effect on reducing the anxiety of workers, who would be better served by being educated about the transmissibility of diseases. Existing protocols had also so far prevented any cases of blood-borne virus transmissions, including HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C, for nearly two decades.
“There have been no transmissions to frontline workers in 17 years and, when correctly followed, these protocols have never failed to prevent blood-borne virus transmission,” said Dr Nicholas Medland, President of the Australian Society of HIV.
“Non-consensual testing is against medical ethics. It’s dangerous and may lead to further incidents of exposure,” he said.
Nicholas Parkhill, CEO of ACON, a government-funded community organisation focused on ending HIV prevalence in the community, said the bill would also provide “false reassurance” to public sector workers, describing the measure as “fear driven” and at odds with the views of doctors, epidemiologists and public health experts.
“It creates unnecessary costs to an already stretched health system and allows testing to occur where there is no risk of transmission,” he said. “HIV simply does not get passed on through spitting.”
Committee members also queried officials on the possibility of disease transmission through saliva and biting. They were told that HIV is not able to be transmitted through saliva, while biting carried a “negligible” risk. The inquiry heard Hepititis B and C were both blood-borne viruses and there was no evidence of transmission through saliva, kissing, biting.
Approximately 0.1 per cent of the Australian population is currently living with HIV, the independent MP Alex Greenwich told parliament during parliamentary debate concerning the bill in November.
The inquiry heard frontline workers already receive vaccinations for Hepatitis B and the number of people living with Hepatitis C in NSW is minimal. There is no vaccination for Hepatitis C, but it does have a cure: a tablet which has to be taken weekly for eight to 12 weeks, which is 95-98 per cent effective.
“The vast majority of cases, even if there were bloodstained saliva spitting at somebody, it would not require post-exposure prophylaxis,” said Steven Drew, chief executive of Hepatitis NSW.
He said the bill, while undoubtedly well-intentioned, sought to respond to a “highly unlikely health risk” and disproportionately affected disadvantaged people who would come in contact with people.
“Treating a minor exposure as if it’s a major exposure is not going to make a person less anxious,” he said.
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