HIV Tests for Pregnant Woman, Infants in New Jersey Sparks Controversy

HIV tests will be routine for pregnant women and infants in New Jersey. Acting New Jersey Governor Richard J. Codey signed a measure into law Wednesday that will take effect in six months and will incorporate HIV testing as part of routine prenatal care.  HIV testing will also be required for some newborns in N.J. under the new law supporters say puts N.J. in the forefront of the national fight against transmission of the <"">disease to babies.  “We can significantly reduce the number of infections to newborns and help break down the stigma associated with the disease.  For newborns, early detection can be the ultimate lifesaving measure,” said Codey, acting governor while Governor Jon S. Corzine is out of the country for the holiday.  Codey sponsored the bill as the Senate president.  The bill allows women to opt out of the HIV testing, but critics argue the screening will deprive women of their right to make medical decisions.

New Jersey is the first state to push HIV testing for both pregnant women and newborns.  Arkansas, Michigan, Tennessee, and Texas require health care providers to test a mother for HIV, unless she asks not to be tested, while Connecticut, Illinois, and New York test all newborns.  The law also requires newborns to be tested when the mother tests positive or her HIV status is unknown.  Riki E. Jacobs, executive director of the Hyacinth AIDS Foundation in New Brunswick, the state’s largest AIDS service agency, said the law won’t help the women who don’t get prenatal care.  “We need to focus on getting people into care and keeping them in care,” Jacobs said. “That is our most potent prevention weapon.”

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends all pregnant women be tested, though it has said testing should be voluntary.  The CDC also found medical intervention during pregnancy can cut mother-to-child transmission from 25 percent to two percent.  New Jersey has about 17,600 AIDS cases; women represent 32.4 percent, the third highest rate nationally; the national average is 23.4 percent.  The state has about 115,000 births per year and had seven infants born with HIV in 2005.

The American Civil Liberties Union and some women’s groups contend the bill deprives women of authority to make medical decisions.  “Women’s privacy rights and choices are as constitutionally valid as any other citizen, regardless of reproductive status,” said Maretta J. Short, New Jersey’s National Organization for Women president.

Meanwhile, in Washington, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty said in a statement Wednesday that needle exchanges would be included in a larger city program to reduce AIDS and HIV infections.  About $1 million will be devoted to the exchanges.  A ban in Washington, D.C., against using city money for needle-exchange programs was lifted Wednesday, a move officials say will help reduce the soaring rate of AIDS and HIV there.  A provision allowing the city to fund needle exchanges was included in the $555 billion spending bill signed by President Bush on Wednesday.  Federal spending packages dating back to 1998 had previously blocked such programs.  About 128 of every 100,000 Washington residents have AIDS, compared to 14 cases per 100,000 people nationwide.

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