A National AIDS Trust review of how police approach HIV suggests many constabularies in the UK have procedures based on unfounded concerns regarding transmission, which can fuel ‘scaremongering’ and ‘mistreatment’ for people living with the virus, the charity said.

The NAT report ‘Police occupational health policies and blood borne virus training: protecting health?’ said some police training and policies on HIV were based on out-dated information and could unintentionally increase stigma.

It noted that HIV tests were often administered to police officers when they had not actually been exposed to the virus. Testing officers who were not exposed to risk, it said, wastes time and resources as well as causing alarm and perpetuating ignorance about how HIV is passed on.  

The report was launched after media reports of officers being tested for HIV in situations, drawing attention to headlines including the following: “Dozens of police officers undergo tests for HIV and hepatitis in recent years after being splattered with saliva.”

It also warned that HIV-related stigma could be exacerbated as people with HIV could be handled inappropriately in custody due to unfounded fears about exposure to the virus.

NAT reviewed materials in 15 police constabularies across the UK, including areas with high and low HIV prevalence.   

It said most factual inaccuracy was to be found around routes of transmission, where saliva, scratches, urine and shared toothbrushes were inaccurately considered to be channels through which HIV can be transmitted.

Other issues with policies and training materials highlighted by NAT included outdated information on HIV in the UK today.

NAT pointed to the fact that HIV is no longer a fatal illness, that treatment has an impact on infectiousness and the benefits of early testing.  

It wrote that HIV poses the least threat to police of all the blood borne viruses and raised concerns over advice that HIV positive people in custody should be segregated and not allowed to share facilities with others.

NAT recommended:

  • Police constabularies across the UK must review their materials and ensure they are up-to-date and accurate
  • Police should receive training about HIV so misconceptions about the virus and how it’s passed on can be addressed
  • Police should also receive information about how to treat people living with HIV sensitively and appropriately.

Deborah Jack, Chief Executive of NAT (National AIDS Trust), said: “Stigma continues to fuel unnecessary fear around HIV, and we know this is particularly prevalent in the police force as HIV is commonly cited as the blood borne virus police are most afraid of contracting on the job.

“In fact, HIV poses the least risk as it is sexually transmitted in upwards of 95% of cases in the UK – yet much police guidance focuses on negligible, theoretical or down-right impossible transmission routes. This sort of inaccurate information not only causes needless stress to police officers, but it spurs scaremongering media reports and mistreatment towards people living with HIV.  

“By providing police with appropriate information and training on HIV – particularly around transmission routes – we can begin to break down stigma in this area and ensure a balanced response to risk.”

NAT said it would provide feedback to the individual constabularies reviewed and draw up best practice guidelines for police forces nationally.