How Uganda’s Anti-Gay Law Could Cause A Public Health Crisis

CREDIT: AP Photo/Rebecca Vassie

Ugandans supportive of their government's anti-gay stance attend a march and rally organized by a coalition of Ugandan religious leaders and government officials

A U.S. military-backed HIV/ AIDS research center in Uganda was raided on Thursday, and a worker for the organization was detained by police. The raid was a result of the organization conducting “promotion of homosexuality,” Ugandan police confirmed to the Wall Street Journal, which is in violation of the country’s anti-gay law. (It is worth noting that midday Friday Ugandan police denied that the officer conducting the raid was a legitimate officer.)

“Until we have greater clarity as to the legal basis for the police action,” the organization, the Makerere University Walter Reed Project (MUWRP) said in a release, “the operations of the program are temporarily suspended to ensure the safety of staff and the integrity of the program. We are working directly with the patients of MUWRP to ensure there is no interruption in their care.”

While the arrest of a single individual is troubling, the incident also serves to highlight a broader problem that has emerged in countries that have approved anti-gay laws. Particularly in Africa, where rates of HIV/AIDS are so high, the anti-homosexuality laws won’t just impact the lives of gay Ugandans, but could turn into a full-blown public health crisis.

In Uganda, for example, 7.2 percent of people suffer from HIV infection. Global health outreach programs, particularly from the United States, don’t discriminate against gay sufferers of the condition, and so have continued to do outreach despite the oppressive laws. But a government crackdown could change that.

Not a lot of data are available on how anti-gay laws directly impact HIV outreach, but similar studies on abstinence-only policies may paint a picture. AIDS has been on the rise in Uganda since abstinence-based outreach programs were implemented there, and experts have blamed stigma for the jump.

Dennis Altman is a gay rights activist and professor who has studied the global health impacts of laws that stigmatize the gay community. He has found that studies show rates of HIV infection are almost always higher than those of the general population, and that stigma may actually increase the likelihood of infection because it decreases the likelihood of accessible preventative treatment.

“Clearly the state sponsored persecution of homosexuals — or indeed anyone perceived to be homosexual — makes any outreach to these groups more difficult,” Altman told ThinkProgress, “and this will inevitably impede the provision of education around HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. Support for sexual rights is not only morally right, it is also a basic foundation for good public health”

The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, known as UNAIDS, has been issuing dire warnings about stigma as well, and Altman relies on their work for much of his analysis.

“Stigma and discrimination against those infected with and affected by HIV are widespread and are recognised as a major barrier to accessing prevention, testing and treatment,” UNAIDS writes in one report, “The Caribbean has to move quickly to confront human rights issues facing most vulnerable populations (for example, the criminalisation of sodomy and sex work) and to engage in the meaningful involvement of these populations who do not receive the attention they need, given that they carry the greater burden of the virus.”

As countries have issued or considered anti-homosexuality bans, UNAIDS has repeatedly warned of the public health consequences of those laws’ passage. The problem is complicated even more by reductions in aid to Uganda as retribution for the laws. The World Bank, for example, withdrew $90 million in funding for health services funding after Uganda’s law passed. The White House has also, with regret, suspended surveys on counting high-risk HIV populations.

“[T]he act’s provisions against ‘promotion’ and abetting homosexuality leave questions about what researchers, health workers, and others may do under the law,” the Obama administration wrote in an advisory. “As a result, we are suspending the start of a survey to estimate the size of key at-risk populations that was to be conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Uganda’s Makarere University. Proceeding with the survey could pose a danger to respondents and staff.”

Already, this new public health landscape seems to be taking shape, and the temporary shuttering of MUWRP could potentially signal what’s to come for organizations that do HIV/AIDS outreach. As one HIV advocate told the Washington Blade, “The community is very scared, very worried… They’re underground.”