Dr. Udo Schüklenk works within Queen’s University’s Philosophy Department on issues of philosophy and health care. Recruited from Glasgow Caledonian University in Scotland, he is a world leader in Bioethics, conducting research on HIV/AIDS, research ethics, gay rights and the ethics of biomedical research and clinical medicine in the developing world. As Chair, Dr. Schüklenk is further developing the scholarship on medical resources, multiculturalism and health care, and the social impacts of medical research. He is also adding his voice to the Institute of Population and Public Health. Dr. Schüklenk has a Ph.D. in Bioethics from Monash University in Australia.
Aiding AIDS patients: stigma and legal reform
Thanks to medicine, AIDS is no longer a death sentence – but our medical practices and social attitudes continue to cast the disease as a moral judgment and a lightning rod for deep stigmatization. The task of evaluating the best ways to rectify the situation has fallen to Dr. Udo Schüklenk, Ontario Research Chair in Bioethics.
A law requiring HIV-positive persons to inform their sexual partners or face criminal charges is one of the single biggest impediments to social and medical progress, Schüklenk says. It leads to people delaying – or outright avoiding – getting tested so they don’t have to bear this responsibility. The problem is that the law is rooted in outdated medical knowledge that assumes HIV is incurable.
The consequences of this widely accepted falsehood are great. Many people avoid getting tested which means those who are HIV positive can’t be treated early enough for the treatment to make a difference, and their partners are likely to acquire it as well. The good news is that HIV treatment is now at the point where, after several weeks of treatment, the disease is no longer detectable in the body. Most importantly, it can’t be passed along through sex or other fluid exchanges, deliberate or accidental.
Schüklenk advocates a culture of openness about the HIV virus, where testing is readily available and those with it are not stigmatized. “Frankly, I think HIV tests should be available at the supermarket so anyone can walk in and get one,” he says. That would let people start treatment within weeks and give them a much better chance of survival.”
Remarkably, medicine is now at the point where the drugs used to cure HIV are a far greater threat than the disease itself. “We really need to focus on finding more effective and less harmful drugs, because we really can’t project how they’ll affect people 20 or 30 years down the road, but we do know they’re not good for the liver, the heart, all kinds of body parts.”
HIV may no longer be the death sentence that it once was thanks to advancements in medicine, but until our approach to treatment and prevention is on par with those advancements, it will continue to be profoundly harmful.