How far should the state go in protecting the privacy of people with AIDS? Does that privacy take precedence over every other consideration, including the lives of people who have reason to believe they may have been infected?
These are not simply philosophical questions, but have very real consequences in people's lives.For example, a Salt Lake police officer was bitten last week by a man he was trying to arrest as a burglary suspect. The man was bleeding from mouth injuries when he bit the officer. After the bite, the arrested man said he had AIDS. That may have been nothing more than an attempt to cause anxiety to the policeman. And even if true, the chance of the officer being infected by such a bite are small, perhaps less than 1 percent.
Yet even a 1 percent risk is enough to cause concern with something like AIDS. The problem is that there is nothing the officer can do to force the suspect to have an AIDS test or to force health agencies to release that information.
As a result, the officer, a married man, must live the next six months as if he had the disease, until a series of tests are completed. There is concern and an altered life for him and members of his family.
Privacy laws generally are inviolable, and they should be. Where AIDS is concerned, there are additional arguments. Unless privacy is guaranteed, AIDS victims may not report the disease, raising the risk to society at large. In addition, if the identity of AIDS victims becomes known, they could be subjected to discrimination or harassment.
But concern about the rights and confidentiality of AIDS victims does not mean that the rights of others - like the police officer in question - should simply be brushed aside.
Out of simple justice, the law ought to provide some carefully crafted exceptions so that people like the biting burglar - who declared he had the disease - can be tested for AIDS and the result made known to those people like police officers who believe they may have been infected.
Legislators and health officials are currently working on proposed laws spelling out privacy guarantees for AIDS victims. The bill is planned for the 1989 session of the Utah Legislature.
Any such law should allow AIDS tests to be ordered and results to be released in certain individual circumstances - when there is reason to believe a possible AIDS carrier has deliberately infected an innocent person.