Dr. Sophie Patterson

PhD research demonstrates negative impacts of HIV non-disclosure

June 05, 2017

By Allen Tung

Canada has one of the world’s strictest legal standards when it comes to criminalizing HIV non-disclosure, resulting in a high prosecution rate for people living with HIV. Current Canadian case law suggests that people living with HIV have a legal obligation to disclose their HIV status to sexual partners unless they use a condom and have a low HIV viral load.

Now, ground-breaking PhD research from SFU health sciences graduate Sophie Patterson, a physician, finds that women living with HIV are more likely to face a legal obligation to disclose their HIV status compared to men. She says this is because women face gendered barriers to safe negotiation of condom use, and to achieving and maintaining a low HIV viral load.

Patterson, who convocated in October 2016, will receive a Governor General’s Gold Medal at this month’s convocation for her top scholastic standing. She earned a 4.04 cumulative grade point average out of a possible 4.33.

For her thesis, Patterson worked in partnership with women living with HIV, using a community-based research approach that drew on data from two Canadian HIV cohort studies. Her research is the first to investigate what women understand about their legal obligation to disclose their HIV status. She also sought to examine how the law may impact healthcare engagement among the diversity of women living with HIV in Canada.

In her research, Patterson found women living with HIV had low awareness and understanding of the conditions under which people living with HIV may face a legal obligation to disclose under current Canadian law.

“There’s an urgent need to disseminate information about HIV non-disclosure and the law in community and healthcare settings, to ensure women living with HIV have fundamental information to avoid prosecution and to optimise their health and rights in the current legal climate,” she says.

Past studies have shown that women living with HIV in Canada have poorer health outcomes than men, in large part due to gendered barriers to healthcare engagement. Patterson’s research suggests that HIV non-disclosure laws may limit the type of information that women living with HIV would be willing to share with healthcare providers, further compromising healthcare engagement among women.

This August, Patterson, who is currently working as an emergency room physician in the United Kingdom, begins a five-year specialty training program to become a doctor in public health.