Peace Corps discharge of volunteers diagnosed with HIV raises questions about policy’s realities

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The recent news in Buzzfeed about volunteers who were recently discharged from their Peace Corps postings after being diagnosed with HIV stirred memories at the HIV Medicine Association, an organization of more than 6000 HIV medical providers and researchers, and one of the publishers of this blog.

HIVMA was among those voicing concern about the discharge 10 years earlier of Peace Corps volunteer Jeremiah Johnson after he was diagnosed with HIV, recounted in the Buzzfeed report. The policy excluding people living with HIV was discriminatory and ill-informed, HIVMA wrote in a letter to the flagship U.S. volunteer organization in 2008, noting advances in HIV diagnostics and treatment. In addition, barring people diagnosed with HIV from serving had the potential to stand as a powerful disincentive for getting tested for the virus, the 2008 letter noted. A signer to a friend-of-the-court brief in a case that had led to a State Department revision of policies restricting opportunities for people living with HIV, HIVMA urged the Peace Corps to follow the State Department’s example. After the American Civil Liberties Union took up Johnson’s case, the Peace Corps appeared to have done that, announcing it would no longer discharge volunteers because they had HIV, and leading the ACLU to declare victory.

Click image to read the HIVMA/NASTAD letter

With the news regarding the recent volunteers, however, HIVMA and NASTAD, the National Alliance of State and Territorial AIDS Directors, sought clarification on the Peace Corps policy that had led to their discharges in a new letter to the agency. In the recent discharges, the agency had cited a policy that volunteers would be dismissed for any medical condition that “the Peace Corps cannot medically accommodate or resolve within forty-five (45) days.” The Peace Corps’ recent dismissals, HIVMA and NASTAD wrote, suggested that the agency was assuming that a three-to-six month period was required for the volunteers to be medically stabilized. That assumption, in turn, would be “out of step,” with the success of modern treatment for the virus, “which is simple, potent, and well tolerated,” the two organizations noted, adding “people with HIV generally continue their normal activity while initiating antiretroviral therapy and do not need to be ‘off work’ until the virus is suppressed.”

Most concerning, the HIVMA/NASTAD letter noted, was the indication in the recent events, that “the Peace Corps may not have changed its approach to managing volunteers newly diagnosed with HIV since 2008 . . .” In their May 8, 2018 letter, leaders of the organizations asked to meet with Peace Corps representatives: “[W]e would appreciate the opportunity to meet with you to learn more about how the Peace Corps is applying current HIV prevention and treatment standards to make a medical separation determination for volunteers newly diagnosed with HIV.”

To date, however, they haven’t received a reply.

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