WMA Statement on HIV/AIDS and the Medical Profession


Adopted by the 57th WMA General Assembly, Pilanesberg, South Africa, October 2006

INTRODUCTION

  1. HIV/AIDS is a global pandemic that has created unprecedented challenges for physicians and health infrastructures. In addition to representing a staggering public health crisis, HIV/AIDS is also fundamentally a human rights issue. Many factors drive the spread of the disease, such as poverty, homelessness, illiteracy, prostitution, human trafficking, stigma, discrimination and gender-based inequality. Efforts to tackle the disease are constrained by the lack of human and financial resources available in health care systems. These social, economic, legal and human rights factors affect not only the public health dimension of HIV/AIDS but also individual physicians/health workers and patients, their decisions and relationships.

DISCRIMINATION

  1. Unfair discrimination against HIV/AIDS patients by physicians must be eliminated completely from the practice of medicine.

    1. All persons infected or affected by HIV/AIDS are entitled to adequate prevention, support, treatment and care with compassion and respect for human dignity.

    2. A physician may not ethically refuse to treat a patient whose condition is within his or her current realm of competence, solely because the patient is seropositive.

    3. National Medical Associations should work with governments, patient groups and relevant national and international organizations to ensure that national health policies clearly and explicitly prohibit discrimination against people infected with or affected by HIV/AIDS.

APPROPRIATE / COMPETENT MEDICAL CARE

  1. Patients with HIV/AIDS must be provided with competent and appropriate medical care at all stages of the disease.

  2. A physician who is not able to provide the care and services required by patients with HIV/AIDS should make an appropriate referral to those physicians or facilities that are equipped to provide such services. Unless or until the referral can be accomplished, the physician must care for the patient to the best of his or her ability.

  3. Physicians and other appropriate bodies should ensure that patients have accurate information regarding means of transmission of HIV/AIDS and strategies to protect themselves against infection. Proactive measures should be taken to ensure that all members of the population, and at-risk groups in particular, are educated to this effect.

  4. With reference to those patients who are found to be seropositive, physicians must be able to effectively counsel them regarding: (a) responsible behaviour to prevent the spread of the disease; (b) strategies for their own health protection; and (c) the necessity of alerting sexual and needle-sharing contacts, past and present, as well as other relevant contacts (such as medical and dental personnel) regarding their possible infection.

  5. Physicians must recognize that many people still believe HIV/AIDS to be an automatic and immediate death sentence and therefore will not seek testing. Physicians must ensure that patients have accurate information regarding the treatment options available to them. Patients should understand the potential of antiretroviral treatment (ART) to improve not only their medical condition but also the quality of their lives. Effective ART can greatly extend the period of time that patients are able to lead healthy productive lives, functioning socially and in the workplace and maintaining their independence. HIV/AIDS is increasingly looked upon as a manageable chronic condition.

  6. While strongly advocating ART as the best course of action for HIV/AIDS patients, physicians must also ensure that their patients are fully and accurately informed about all aspects of ART, including potential toxicity and side effects. Physicians must also counsel patients honestly about the possibility of failure of first line ART, and the subsequent options should failure occur. The importance of adhering to the regimens and thereby reducing the risk of failure should be emphasized.

  7. Physicians should be aware that misinformation regarding the negative aspects of ART has created resistance toward treatment by patients in some areas. Where misinformation is being spread about ART, physicians and medical associations must make it an immediate priority to publicly challenge the source of the misinformation and to work with the HIV/AIDS community to counteract the negative effects of the misinformation.

  8. Physicians should encourage the involvement of support networks to assist patients in adhering to ART regimens. With the patient's consent, counselling and training should be available to family members to assist them in providing family based care. Physicians must recognize families and other support networks as crucial partners in adherence strategies and, in many places, the only means to adequately expand the care system so that patients receive the required attention.

  9. Physicians must be aware of the discriminatory attitudes toward HIV/AIDS that are prevalent in society and local culture. Because physicians are the first, and sometimes the only, people who are informed of their patients' HIV status, physicians should be able to counsel them about their basic social and legal rights and responsibilities or should refer them to counsellors who specialize in the rights of persons living with HIV/AIDS.

TESTING

  1. Mandatory testing for HIV must be required of: donated blood and blood fractions collected for donation or to be used in the manufacture of blood products; organs and other tissues intended for transplantation; and semen or ova collected for assisted reproduction procedures.

  2. Mandatory HIV testing of an individual against his or her will is a violation of medical ethics and human rights. Exceptions to this rule may be made only in the most extreme cases and should be subject to review by an ethics panel or to judicial review.

  3. Physicians must clearly explain the purpose of an HIV test, the reasons it is recommended and the implications of a positive test result. Before a test is administered, the physician should have an action plan in place in case of a positive test result. Informed consent must be obtained from the patient prior to testing.

  4. While certain groups are labelled "high risk", anyone who has had unprotected sex should be considered at some risk. Physicians must become increasingly proactive about recommending testing to patients, based on a mutual understanding of the level of risk and the potential to benefit from testing. Pregnant women should routinely be offered testing.

  5. Counselling and voluntary anonymous testing for HIV should be available to all persons who request it, along with adequate post-testing support mechanisms.

PROTECTION FROM HIV IN THE HEALTH CARE ENVIRONMENT

  1. Physicians and all health care workers have the right to a safe work environment. Especially in developing countries, the problem of occupational exposure to HIV has contributed to high attrition rates of the health labour force. In some cases, employees become infected with HIV, and in other cases fear of infection causes health care workers to leave their jobs voluntarily. Fear of infection among health workers can also lead to refusal to treat HIV/AIDS patients. Likewise, patients have the right to be protected to the greatest degree possible from transmission of HIV from health professionals and in health care institutions.

    1. Proper infection control procedures and universal precautions consistent with the most current national or international standards, as appropriate, should be implemented in all health care facilities. This includes procedures for the use of preventive ART for health professionals who have been exposed to HIV.

    2. If the appropriate safeguards for protecting physicians or patients against infection are not in place, physicians and National Medical Associations should take action to correct the situation.

    3. Physicians who are infected with HIV should not engage in any activity that creates a risk of transmission of the disease to others. In the context of possible exposure to HIV, the activity in which the physician wishes to engage will be the determining factor. Whether or not an activity is acceptable should be determined by a panel or committee of health care workers with specific expertise in infectious diseases.

    4. In the provision of medical care, if a risk of transmission of an infectious disease from a physician to a patient exists, disclosure of that risk to patients is not enough; patients are entitled to expect that their physicians will not increase their exposure to the risk of contracting an infectious disease.

    5. If no risk exists, disclosure of the physician's medical condition to his or her patients will serve no rational purpose.

PROTECTING PATIENT PRIVACY AND ISSUES RELATED TO NOTIFICATION

  1. Fear of stigma and discrimination is a driving force behind the spread of HIV/AIDS. The social and economic repercussions of being identified as infected can be devastating and can include violence, rejection by family and community members, loss of housing and loss of employment, to name only a few. Normalizing the presence of HIV/AIDS in society through public education is the only way to reduce discriminatory attitudes and practices. Until that can be universally achieved, or a cure is developed, potentially infected individuals will refuse testing to avoid these consequences. The result of individuals not knowing their HIV status is not only disastrous on a personal level in terms of not receiving treatment, but may also lead to high rates of avoidable transmission of the disease. Fear of unauthorized disclosure of information also provides a disincentive to participate in HIV/AIDS research and generally thwarts the efficacy of prevention programs. Lack of confidence in protection of personal medical information regarding HIV status is a threat to public health globally and a core factor in the continued spread of HIV/AIDS. At the same time, in certain circumstances, the right to privacy must be balanced with the right of partners (sexual and injection drug) of persons with HIV/AIDS to be informed of their potential infection. Failure to inform partners not only violates their rights but also leads to the same health problems of avoidable transmission and delay in treatment.

  2. All standard ethical principles and duties related to confidentiality and protection of patients' health information, as articulated in the WMA Declaration of Lisbon on the Rights of the Patient, apply equally in the context of HIV/AIDS. In addition, National Medical Associations and physicians should take note of the special circumstances and obligations (outlined below) associated with the treatment of HIV/AIDS patients.

    1. National Medical Associations and physicians must, as a matter of priority, ensure that HIV/AIDS public education, prevention and counselling programs contain explicit information related to protection of patient information as a matter not only of medical ethics but of their human right to privacy.

    2. Special safeguards are required when HIV/AIDS care involves a physically dispersed care team that includes home-based service providers, family members, counsellors, case workers or others who require medical information to provide comprehensive care and assist in adherence to treatment regimens. In addition to implementing protection mechanisms regarding transfer of information, ethics training regarding patient privacy should be given to all team members.

    3. Physicians must make all efforts to convince HIV/AIDS patients to take action to notify all partners (sexual and/or injection drug) about their exposure and potential infection. Physicians must be competent to counsel patients about the options for notifying partners. 

      These options should include:

      1. notification of the partner(s) by the patient. In this case, the patient should receive counselling regarding the information that must be provided to the partner and strategies for delivering it with sensitivity and in a manner that is easily understood. A timetable for notification should be established and the physician should follow-up with the patient to ensure that notification has occurred.

      2. notification of the partner(s) by a third party. In this case, the third party must make every effort to protect the identity of the patient.

    4. When all strategies to convince the patient to take such action have been exhausted, and if the physician knows the identity of the patient's partner(s), the physician is compelled, either by law or by moral obligation, to take action to notify the partner(s) of their potential infection. Depending on the system in place, the physician will either notify directly the person at risk or report the information to a designated authority responsible for notification. In cases where a physician must disclose the information regarding exposure, the physician must:

      1. inform the patient of his or her intentions,

      2. to the extent possible, ensure that the identity of the patient is protected,

      3. take the appropriate measures to protect the safety of the patient, especially in the case of a female patient vulnerable to domestic violence.

    5. Regardless of whether it is the patient, the physician or a third party who undertakes notification, the person learning of his or her potential infection should be offered support and assistance in order to access testing and treatment.

    6. National Medical Associations should develop guidelines to assist physicians in decision-making related to notification. These guidelines should help physicians understand the legal requirements and consequences of notification decisions as well as the medical, psychological, social and ethical considerations.

    7. National Medical Associations should work with governments to ensure that physicians who carry out their ethical obligation to notify individuals at risk, and who take precautions to protect the identity of their patient, are afforded adequate legal protection.

MEDICAL EDUCATION

  1. National Medical Associations should assist in ensuring that there is training and education of physicians in the most current prevention strategies and medical treatments available for all stages of HIV/AIDS, including prevention and support.

  2. National Medical Associations should insist upon, and assist with when possible, the education of physicians in the relevant psychological, legal, cultural and social dimensions of HIV/AIDS.

  3. National Medical Associations should fully support the efforts of physicians wishing to concentrate their expertise in HIV/AIDS care, even where HIV/AIDS is not recognized as an official specialty or sub-specialty within the medical education system.

  4. The WMA encourages its National Medical Associations to promote the inclusion of designated, comprehensive courses on HIV/AIDS in undergraduate and postgraduate medical education programs, as well as continuing medical education.