Last Friday, British tabloid The Daily Mail put out an incendiary story that claimed a series of hypodermic needle attacks had transmitted HIV. Now, the National AIDS Trust has lambasted the paper for spreading misinformation and stigma, pointing out that a healthcare expert could easily have shown such transmission is “almost impossible.”
As part of a story alleging a surge in shoplifting across the UK, The Daily Mail featured numerous violent anecdotes and images. Richard Walker, the executive chairman of Iceland Foods, claimed in an interview that three staff members who had been attacked with needles are now HIV positive.
Home affairs correspondent Rory Tingle, the article’s author, characterized the claim as fact. “The idea of victims being infected with HIV after being attacked with infected needles has long been a dark urban myth,” Tingle wrote, “but Mr Walker’s comments show this has now become a reality.”
The National AIDS Trust unequivocally disagreed. In a statement released on Wednesday, the charity group said, “We believe claims that HIV transmission occurred through needle attacks to Iceland staff are inaccurate and have fueled HIV stigma.”
The book in question was Anne Frank’s Diary: The Graphic Adaptation, a comic book version of a Jewish family’s struggle to survive the Holocaust.
Setting the record straight, the National AIDS Trust explained why the story is medically unlikely—let alone to have happened three times. “We are unaware of any cases of HIV having ever been transmitted in this way,” they wrote. “Such transmission is almost impossible. The HIV virus is fragile and cannot survive outside a body for a long time.”
Showing the tabloid how journalistic integrity is done, the organization confirmed their assessment with the UK Health Security Agency. “This would be a highly unlikely route of transmission,” the agency added, “because the vast majority of people living with HIV are on treatment and therefore have an undetectable level of virus and no transmission risk. Anyone who has had a needlestick assault or injury is advised to seek medical advice.”
In addition to reporting the story without apparent fact-checking, The Daily Mail centered the HIV needle attack angle in the headline. The National AIDS Trust minced no words describing the damage such coverage does, especially considering it will spread to other outlets.
“Media stories like this are extremely stigmatizing to people living with HIV, perpetuate damaging narratives and spread incorrect information around HIV and its transmission. We know people have been affected by this article and share the distress it has caused.”
While other outlets who jumped on the story have since amended their articles, neither the Daily Mail nor Iceland Foods have yet responded to the organization’s request to clarify the story. “While we accept that Mr Walker believed this claim to be true when he said it,” the charity concluded, “our understanding of HIV transmission, alongside public health responses to HIV makes us confident that these incidents did not occur.”