On a Tuesday in August, Georgia Southern University issued an alarming “health alert” to its students. A “dominant” black man was “intentionally and knowingly” transmitting HIV. School officials warned the press, too. But weeks later, amid denials by state health officials that they authorized or distributed the alert, the school has quietly removed it from its website. A lot of people are demanding to know why it was posted in the first place.
“This ‘health alert’ has all the subtlety of a campfire story about an escaped ax murderer,” says Georgia-based blogger and activist Mark King. “Those most likely to infect us are people we know and trust, not the viral-wielding thugs as described by campus police.”
Indeed, in the weeks since the warning, police have so far filed no criminal charges, identified no suspects, and provided no public substantiation that anything in the alert was true. Still, the initial warning left little to the imagination:
"The Department of Public Safety has been informed of a potential danger in the form of an HIV positive individual who may be knowingly and intentionally infecting his sexual partners. The subject is reportedly an attractive, well-kempt, well-dressed African American male who is in his mid-thirties, but could appear to be in his mid-twenties. He may portray himself as a world traveler who has lived in New York City, Philadelphia and Atlanta. He may also report living in smaller towns like Savannah, Statesboro, Augusta, Macon and Vidalia. He is masculine and dominant, has tattoos and sometimes wears glasses and/or facial hair.While he has been known to target men, the subject presents a risk to anyone with whom he has intimate contact. He has been known to approach a victim, gain his trust and move into the victim’s home. He may tell the victim he has a recording studio and can assist with a recording career. He has also been known to claim that he works as an HIV counselor/assistant."
GSU’s dean of students, Patrice Buckner-Jackson, issued a press statement in conjunction with the alert: "Georgia Southern University received an anonymous report of a potential health danger to our students that we determined to be a credible threat. The University is taking action to issue a warning to our students about the potential threat from an HIV infected male. At Georgia Southern, we strive to teach our students to make informed decisions. The safety and well-being of our students remain our top priorities."
University spokesman Casey Jones declined to answer any questions about the alert, including when and why it was removed from the university’s website. Jones also declined to answer questions about how the university determined the anonymous report was “a credible threat.”
A spokesman for Georgia’s Department of Public Health says it provided technical assistance to GSU for testing and access to treatment for new infections but that the department was not involved in the ongoing criminal investigation and had nothing to do with the health alert.
“I underscore that the alert you mention was not authored or distributed by DPH,” emailed Ryan Deal, communications director for the Department. “DPH has not issued an alert of this nature.”
National and local activists have condemned the alert as stigmatizing against those living with HIV. Terrence Moore, director of policy and health equity with the National Association of State and Territorial AIDS Directors – a national membership organization of the leading health authorities on HIV in the U.S. – slammed the alert in a statement released to The American Independent.
“While we are glad that the University has since removed the health threat from the website, the message that it shared was stigmatizing toward people living with HIV and populations disproportionately affected by HIV, especially Black gay men,” Moore wrote. “We understand that the University feels the need to maintain the health and safety of its students; however, this health alert did not follow a public health approach to HIV prevention as recommended by the National HIV/AIDS Strategy (NHAS), whose vision ends with ‘free of stigma and discrimination.’ This is evident by fact that the Georgia Department of Public Health was not consulted before this alert, which is very disconcerting.”